Since the evening I saw it, now, as I type this, almost two weeks ago, I’ve been pretty obsessed with Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One from a screenwriting standpoint. Director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie pretty obviously wanted to make a movie about the dangers of artificial intelligence – in this movie referred to as “The Entity” – and the ideas presented are so ambitious it needs two full movies to properly show. Okay, fair enough, AI is certainly a hot-button issue right now. (So much of a hot-button issue I wonder if the filmmakers are surprised. If Dead Reckoning Part One would have come out in 2021 when it was originally intended, a lot of the plot points would probably come off a little more futuristic as opposed to, yeah, this all seems correct.)
But reverse engineering a bit, how do you have Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force do battle with AI? Well, there’s the obvious solution of the AI manifesting itself into something like a Terminator, but McQuarrie doesn’t want to go down that road. He plays it much more realistic here – which certainly adds a real sense of foreboding knowing the real-life stakes aren’t that far off from what we are watching. But how do you have Ethan fight a computer?
This seems like a real problem that I suspect wasn’t the easiest plot point to crack. Fighting AI seems either way too easy or way too hard. In that, Ethan could just show up at Google, or whatever, and say, “We need to turn this off.” Or, the AI now lives on every single electronic device and, at that point, what can Ethan really do? Here’s what they did…
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens up on a Russian submarine, Dead Reckoning, and we are told it’s the most advanced stealth sub in the world. (And borrowing a trick from The Hunt For Red October where the English subtitles eventually go away and everyone just starts speaking English.) But the submarine’s computer systems go haywire, eventually plunging the vessel into the icy depths of the Bering Sea. On board that submarine is a room where the computer systems are housed. To access the submarine’s computer system a user would need two keys that slide into one another forming a four-sided key. The Entity now lives in that room at the bottom of the sea. (Look, the plot of this movie is pretty dense and a lot of time is used trying to explain it. I realize this is a lot of information, but after this movie I was assembling charts and graphs trying to figure out exactly was going on, so hopefully this saves you some time.) Okay, having explained that…
The Entity has now infected pretty much all the world’s important computer systems: defense systems, banks … you name it. But, has yet to do anything nefarious – its goal seemed to be just to let everyone know what it’s capable of doing. Now, every country and organization seeking power wants to be in control of The Entity since The Entity has its grip on literally everything. And the way to control The Entity is by obtaining those two aforementioned keys. Kittridge (Henry Czerny)* sends Ethan Hunt on a mission to retrieve these keys. And his first stop is finding Ethan’s old flame, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who intelligence believes has one of the keys. For what reason, no one knows.
(*It’s so great to have Czerny back as Kittridge. I just recently watched the first Mission: Impossible and for the life of me I can’t figure out why he’s not in all of these. His monologue at the beginning of that first film when he finally tells Ethan, “I understand you’re very upset,” is still so wonderful. He’s got this excellent mix of swarm and authority that’s really hard to do. Where we as an audience think, “This guy is the worst, but also he really seems to know what he’s doing and I can’t help but respect that.” That’s a difficult combination to pull off. It’s usually one or the other. There’s a great scene in Dead Reckoning where Kittridge tries to explain to the National Security Director (Cary Elwes) what IMF even is that’s really funny and doesn’t work without Czerny. “What do you mean they can turn it down?”)
I truly get that McQuarrie really wanted to take on this AI idea and that, he’s correct in thinking so, it does feel like a very pertinent issue – at least more than another movie where someone wants to blow something up. This does seem like McQuarrie’s meditation on AI and the dangerous direction we are headed. But it does take a lot of setup and a long way to get there, which after a while does start to feel heavy on the exposition and a bit confusing. (Or, at least, about as confusing as most James Bond movies.) But once all the teams all start chasing the keys, it’s a lot of fun. Ethan runs into a lot of old friends along the way. Of course, Luther and Benji are back (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) and Ethan, once again, has to deal with the arms dealer Alanna (Vanessa Kirby, having a great time), who also very much wants these keys. And we meet Grace (Hayley Atwell) a master pickpocket hired to steal the keys who doesn’t seem to quite know what she’s involved in here. (Also, it is kind of funny, for as important these two keys are, a lot of the characters just slip them into their casual slacks pocket, or whatever. I am more guarded about my key to my apartment building’s trash bins than some of the characters are about these keys that control the world.)
Oh, and there’s Esai Morales’s Gabriel, who has a past with Ethan Hunt — most of his motivations seem mysterious, even up until the end. His affiliation only seems to be to The Entity, but what he’s gaining from any of this isn’t quite clear.
And I say “up until the end” because, once again, we are not getting a full movie. This is quite a recent trend. And I truly don’t think audiences like it. A friend of mine saw Across the Spider-Verse recently, knowing full well it was the first of two halves, but most of the rest of the audience sure didn’t and were not happy. The good news is Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One isn’t as egregious with its ending. This movie is about the keys. The next (I’m guessing) seems like it will be what to even do with those keys. So there are two clear missions here and this movie covers the first of those, but it’s still not a complete story and because of that is nowhere near as satisfying as Fallout. A lot of Mission: Impossible movies have a lot of exposition and can be complicated. Brian de Palma’s first movie (still my personal favorite, with Fallout a close second) is pretty complicated! But a terrific finale can cure all of that. And Dead Reckoning Part One has a really great sequence on a train to close the movie out, it doesn’t resolve anything, like that incredible fight with Henry Cavill does in Fallout.
And that’s the thing about Mission: Impossible movies: Their nature is to be “satisfying“! That feels like kind of the point – that extra oomph of adrenaline. But with the inherent nature of a two-part story, I guess we will have to wait for next year (hopefully) for that.
‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ opens July 12th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.