Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Ghost in the machine

with 2 comments

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mission: Impossible franchise, which feels less like a coherent series of feature films than a sandbox for a succession of gifted directors to play with the idea of the spy movie itself. Aside from the title and Lalo Schifrin’s indispensable theme, the movies have little in common with the show of the same name, but these elements, along with a star who seems admirably willing to try variations on his screen persona, have allowed for a wide range of approaches, from impersonal puzzle box to fiery action extravaganza to TV-inspired ensemble piece. And while Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol has the least personal stamp of any movie in the series, it’s perhaps the most culturally significant: along with something of a personal triumph for Tom Cruise, it’s the opening salvo from a generation of Pixar directors who seem destined to shake up the world of live-action film.

To take the most obvious example: the massively hyped action scene at the Burj Khalifa isn’t merely as good as they say, it’s the best use of IMAX I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, it definitively establishes the supremacy of IMAX over 3D as a medium for generating thrills: the entire sequence, with its crystalline cinematography and breathtaking stunts, is as close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve had at the movies. Like Christopher Nolan, Bird knows how to ground sensational action in what feels like reality—there are only a handful of obvious special effects shots in the entire film. And throughout, he shows a preternatural gift for staging and executing the best kind of action scene: one conceived at the script and storyboard stage, with cleanly defined beats and a real beginning, middle, and end, rather than a Michael Bay-style nightmare of second-unit footage assembled after the fact in the editing room. (In recent years, only the Guggenheim shootout in The International comes close to what Bird offers here in terms of inventiveness and excitement.)

If Ghost Protocol has a flaw, it’s that it never manages to come up with an overarching narrative of the same fluency as its individual parts. It’s true that story has never been this franchise’s strong point—the first installment, in particular, plays like an attempt to spin a feature film from the most gossamer of plot threads. But I’ve always thought that the script for Mission: Impossible II, still my favorite, was surprisingly engaging and self-aware, with a central love triangle profitably copied from Notorious and a lot of witty details. Mission: Impossible III, in turn, was a calculated attempt to humanize the franchise, as well as the only time that J.J. Abrams, as a feature director or producer, has bothered to deliver on the twists that he constantly promises. Ghost Protocol has a lot of cute touches, but it lacks that kind of surprise, and the basic elements have been even more casually assembled than usual, with a vaguely deployed threat of nuclear annihilation and an off-the-shelf bad guy. (The absence of a great villain from Bird, who gave us the hateful Syndrome in The Incredibles, is perhaps the film’s only real disappointment.)

In the end, then, Ghost Protocol comes off as the world’s greatest demo reel, a chance for Bird to demonstrate that he has the willingness and technical ability to do almost anything, as if the real drama here was being played out in the context of the director’s résumé. As I watched it, my mind was curiously divided: while my lower brain was tingling with adrenaline, my higher functions remained relatively detached. For all the film’s excitement, its sense of risk is more visceral than narrative: despite an appealing cast—and this is by far the best team that Ethan Hunt has ever had—the movie never really creates any possibility of danger toward the characters themselves. Still, it’s a movie that I’d happily see again and again, and I doubt that many viewers will complain. As Walter Kerr might have said, this is a machine for exciting the audience, a watch that thrills. And it makes me all the more curious to see the next movie from Brad Bird, who emerges here as a director of great skill and assurance. Once he gets a real story, he’ll be unstoppable.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. Now I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I’ve also liked the MI franchise. Will look for an IMAX theatre soon.

    Java Girl

    December 20, 2011 at 9:24 am

  2. Definitely see it on the biggest screen you can. It’s a pretty good movie in any theater, but IMAX is worth the extra money.

    nevalalee

    December 20, 2011 at 11:33 am


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