On paper, the Mission: Impossible movies are the least surprising movies on Earth. Each features around three big death-defying stunts, a dramatic unmask or two, and a lengthy car chase sprinkled in for good measure. The bad guys never really win, but we’ll be tricked into believing that someone we care about dies, even though it’s rare that anyone actually does. The Impossible Missions Force—already a clandestine team who are regularly reminded that the United States government will deny their existence if caught—are forced to go rogue and even become more clandestine, which usually results in a hastily assembled backup plan and the movie’s biggest stunt.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 follows this formula almost to the letter. Like the rest of the films in this long-running franchise, it is effectively spoiler-proof. Nothing about your experience would change if I told you that his central car chase is a goofy bit of extended physical comedy where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is handcuffed to a thief known only as Grace (Hayley Atwell) and the two need to figure out how to drive a toy car together. Or that its centerpiece—a much-publicized death-defying jump off a motorcycle rolling down a mountain—is about as cool as it looks in the ads. And the finale is even cooler: a runaway train sequence that’s kind of thrilling, even though runaway trains are some of the biggest action movie cliches.
All of this is going to really appeal to action fans – especially those seeing this film in theaters. Because Mission: Impossible movies, like Tom Cruise (now synonymous with the franchise), come from a deep belief that the secret to a blockbuster that people will go to see is in showing people play at a level that explodes beyond the everyday. These films use cinematic magic to make it look like real humans are doing outrageous things, rather than using them as faces meant to humanize a put-together digital creation.
That is why Dead Reckoning part one makes for an amazing blockbuster experience. Like its predecessors – specifically Chris McQuarrie’s previous two entries in the series – the film married its outlook to Tom Cruise and his famous commitment to doing his own stunts. Ethan Hunt’s incredible feats often seem real because they are real. Everything else in these films is in line with this commitment. The supporting characters are there to make Hunt feel human enough; the villain is there to make Hunt feel tested enough; the plot is meant to carry Ethan from one explosion to the next.
The Mission: Impossible movies aim for something decidedly different from comic book movies, the other dominant force at the box office every summer. It’s not as simple as M:I preferring practical effects to the digital parades of the MCU – it’s in the performances. This contrasts with the plot, which prioritizes serialized superhero adventures in that it can be difficult to talk about for fear of spoilers.
Mission: Impossible, on the other hand, is a rock concert. Try to mess one up. You can tell an audience in advance exactly what the band they’re watching is going to sing, and it doesn’t really matter. Tom Cruise is the Eddie Van Halen of airplane jumping. Everyone comes to these movies knowing all the words – we’re just here to sing them loud.
For that reason, it’s all the more intriguing that the villain of Mission: Impossible – Estimated (both current part one And Second part, scheduled for June 2024) is not a person, but an algorithm. Called “The Entity”, he is an artificial intelligence that is, in fact, the final boss of the Mission: Impossible films. Eliminate terrorists, secret warlords and rogue nations in the franchise’s perpetual quest to excel, Dead Reckoning settles on a neat two-way.
Artificial intelligence is both the existential threat of the day – excellent fodder for a summer blockbuster – and a clever metaphor for what the franchise has ultimately come to mean in the modern landscape. An algorithm-powered program — your Netflix queue, your Grubhub app, the generative language models that produce tons of text in no time — can give you what you want, figure out what you’re likely to do and do a lot of what you can, but faster and on a large scale.
But the Mission: Impossible films, like the star they orbit, are built around the idea that AI is just another challenge to throw ourselves into, with blind faith that we will emerge victorious. The machine can only do what makes sense based on what it has seen before. He can’t do what Ethan Hunt does, what audiences know he’ll do every time: something so colossally stupid, it just might work out.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 hits theaters on July 12.