“The world is changing. Truth is vanishing. War is coming.” So states one of Ethan Hunt’s main adversaries in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1, one of the first blockbusters to tackle our new era of AI. This time around, Ethan’s ultimate nemesis is simply “the entity,” a “godless, stateless, amoral” intelligence that has become sentient. Existing “everywhere and nowhere,” the entity is capable of “thousands of quadrillions of computations per microsecond,” and has breached the US Federal Reserve, stock market and power grid, along with military-industrial complexes across the world. Hunt’s mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to take control of the entity before anyone else can harness and weaponise it, since whoever does so is assured of “a new and invulnerable form of global dominance.” Ethan wants to destroy the entity entirely, but he is warned against this by his employees, who caution him to return it intact, so that it can be operationalised on behalf of the United States.
Dead Reckoning offers a particularly eerie vision of how artificial intelligence might dovetail with a post-truth era to produce a new world of religious fanaticism. The entity’s human agent, Gabriel, describes himself as a “dark messiah…the entity’s chosen messenger,” while Ethan sees him as a dangerous “fanatic.” Gabriel also appears in the guise of one of Ethan’s former enemies, but with his past wiped, suffusing him with the evangelical sensibility of a recent convert. Likewise, Ethan’s only chance of stopping the entity lies with a cruciform key, studded with gold and gemstones, that feels more like a relic of the Eastern Church than the last threshold before the AI singularity. Midway through the film, the entity requires the ritual sacrifice of one of Ethan’s friends – “it is written” – while Ethan promises Gabriel that “if anything happens to them, there is no place you or your god can go to be safe from me – that is written.” These Christian overtones continue into a party that is both held by and within the entity, at the heart of St. Mark’s Church in Venice, and then crystallises around a Judas-like plot in which the entity correctly predicts that one of its operatives will turn out to betray it.
In other words, the entity becomes a quasi-Christian phenomenon, the harbinger of the third testament that might emerge when the post-truth Christian right and artificial intelligence converge in our near future. The entity is also the perfect antagonist for the Mission: Impossible franchise, to the point where it now feels as if it was always the real nemesis that Ethan was up against. Most of the films consist of Ethan trying to discern his enemy, and then insinuate himself into and impersonate their identity. Here, however, the entity is easily able to outstrip Ethan’s skills in these area, continually infiltrating his closest network, even as it offers precisely the blank space that Ethan was driven to claim as his own in the past. Over the course of the franchise, Ethan’s enemies have become more notional, remote and abstract, all but vanishing into the void that the entity now occupies, so perpetually present that it’s all but invisible. Rather than being a discrete figure, or even a network, Ethan’s nemesis now becomes as amorphous as the spaces around him, most memorably at the party at St. Mark’s Church, where the lavish Byzantine architecture subliminally shifts into the inner topography of the AI, which pulses and ripples across a series of screens as Gabriel gives voice to its sentience and omniscience: “You might even say that the interested party is this party.”
One of the odd consequences of this new focus on AI is that it radically refurbishes one of the hokiest features of the franchise – the fixation with facial prosthetics. In the middle part of the cycle, these prosthetics were little more than loving homages to the original television series, but they take on a new existential threat in Dead Reckoning, due to the entity’s ability to add, remove or alter faces in any surveillance data anywhere in the planet. We’re introduced to this capacity in an extraordinary early set piece at Abu Dhabi Airport, where Ethan hopes to make contact with a broker who possesses one half of the cruciform key. To some extent, his team are able to pre-empt the entity’s abilities, and keep their enemies off the scent, by manipulating the airport surveillance footage so that Ethan’s face keeps appearing on those of regular commuters. But the entity soon demonstrates its supremacy by hacking into Ethan’s own augmented reality glasses to remove the face of Gabriel as soon as he glimpses it, part of an ongoing real-time “scrubbing” of Gabriel from any security data he encounters. From this moment, every face in Dead Reckoning seems somewhat provisional, liable to the kinds of deepfake impersonation that have plagued Cruise himself in the buildup to the film’s release. Ethan himself recognises this too, barking to his team to extricate themselves from the mission by any means necessary, as the airport turns into a departure site for a new reality altogether. The sequence ends with Ethan escaping along the roof, where he runs between sand dune-inspired architectural flourishes as the camera swoops in sympathy, lyrically identifying itself with the space as thoroughly as the entity itself.
Of course, this sequence also clarifies that Ethan’s team relied on being at the cutting-edge of global mapping and surveillance that the entity now commands. In effect, they worked in the connective tissue, blind spots and unregulated spaces of the globalised world, which are precisely the zones that the entity itself has colonised, making it “a perfect covert operative.” Not only can it infiltrate any system, thereby outplaying Ethan’s skill set, but it can also self-destruct as it does so, and with infinitely more dexterity than the messages Ethan receives from his employers at the IMF. The entity thus converges the dry work and wet work of covert intelligence into a single mind, a political state unto itself, and in doing so radically disorients Ethan’s command over both space and time. In one scene, the entity hacks Hunt’s GPS system, and impersonates Benji Dunn’s (Simon Pegg) voice, forcing him and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) to scramble for a way to hack themselves back ino the interface as Ethan is led directly towards the enemy through the labyrinthine backstreets of Venice. Likewise, Ethan’s uncanny ability to think several steps ahead at all times is seriously thwarted by the need to “play four-dimensional chess with an algorithm,” since “anything we do, we have to assume it’s counting on us to do it.” Interfaces abound more hyperactively than in any Mission: Impossible film so far, but they’re also the most compromised, and the most fractured, epitomised by the glitchy credit sequence, which already seems hacked apart by the entity.
While the most recent Mission: Impossible films have moved away from the campy comedy of Brian De Palma’s original, Dead Reckoning deprives Hunt of his spatiotemporal prowess to such an extent that the results can’t help but lapse over into absurdism. Time and again, Hunt and the other characters are crammed, boxed or packed into awkward spaces, as the human body becomes ever more ungainly and inelegant in comparison to the seamless sightlines and timelines of the entity. In one of the most memorable sequences, Hunt and sidekick Grace (Hayley Atwell) are forced to navigate the streets of Paris while handcuffed together, in a tiny yellow car, with both police and more nefarious criminals on their trail. Sometimes they alternate the driving, sometimes they drive together, but their trajectory only grows funnier as it goes on, culminating with them hurtling down the Spanish Steps and trying desperately to gain traction as their Herbie-esque vehicle spins round the Fontana della Barcaccia, a comically massive van on their trail the entire time. Later on, when the entity hacks Benji’s GPS commentary, Ethan finds himself trapped in the narrowest alley in Venice, where he has to dispose of his pursuers with only three feet of space between the two walls, and yet this simply literalises the radically reduced physical space in which all the characters move, think and speak: “We can’t be sure anything is real outside of this very conversation.”
Compressing the characters to these cramped space also produces a proportionate desire for physical movement, for bodily command over space and time, which we see in the long tracking shots of Ethan running. The camera remains on these for inordinate periods, most dramatically when Ethan escapes the AI party (or AI-as-party) at St. Mark’s Church, as if the entire film were trying to sprint ahead of the virtual singularity that lingers on the horizon. And it’s here that we see McQuarrie and Cruise’s combined mission of restoring action cinema truly come into its own – as a riposte to the airless aesthetic ushered in by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For while the Marvel aesthetic is full of action, the action takes place in a world so devoid of embodied spatiotemporality that it seems to have forestalled even the slightest motion before it occurs. Paradoxically, this is only enhanced by films like Eternals or Avengers: Endgame that take place across vast spatial and temporal swathes. In these releases, space and time are leached of all corporeality, reduced instead to a corporate singularity that makes it impossible to feel any bodily extension towards the action on screen.
In direct contravention of this airless approach, McQuarrie and Cruise respond with action that hangs ever more precariously in mid-air. Whatever the transportation trajectory of Dead Reckoning (and there are many) it always ends by suspending the characters in space. The car chase in Rome ends with Ethan and Grace careening over the Spanish steps. The train sequence that ends the final act climaxes with carriage after carriage plummeting over a viaduct. And of course, the centrepiece of the film sees Ethan ride a motorbike up the crest of a mountain, before plunging and parachuting into open space. It’s no coincidence that this, the most extravagant stunt in the film, coincides with the crisis at which the entity is about to achieve singularity. It’s equally crucial that Cruise actually performed the stunt himself, and that the breathtaking aerial footage of him falling into the clouds, his face contorting in the pressure, reflects real physical discomfort. In this sequence, Dead Reckoning, and Cruise and McQuarrie, provide a gesture of defiance to the artificial intelligence aesthetic that is starting to creep into cinema itself, a literal and physical riposte to recent films such as Ghosted, or series such as Citadel, that feel made entirely by algorithm – and perhaps just as depressingly, look as if they were made entirely by algorithm as well. Even after this first part of Dead Reckoning is resolved, the final shot is of Hunt parachuting into the same valley, before we cut briefly to the depths of the Arctic Ocean, where the secret of the key apparently lies in wait, promising a sequel filled with underwater action to match these dizzying aerial displays.