To mark what shall henceforth be known as “Ballard Day”, in memory of the late master of the dystopic dithyramb, JG Ballard, we decided to watch a summer blockbuster chez Self-Kapriélian. Ballard Day marks the end of summer in a warming world, and can occur any time between early September and late January of the following year: the temperature drops, the rains return, and young women heading for a night out north of Corby dust off their microskirts.
Mrs S-K is a long-time fan of the Mission: Impossible film franchise: she knows it’s wrong, and arguably she needs help with her problem; but we all understand, don’t we, that it’s sometimes best to indulge a family member’s neurosis, because if it’s expunged, another one will inevitably replace it. So, we set up the big home screen, got out the projector, paid 14 shitters to some streaming service out of South Korea we’ll never use again but which will carry on taking £6.83 out of one or other of our credit cards, monthly, until one or other of us applies for probate, and kicked back to enjoy…
Another sickening intimation of our own mortality, to wit, Tom Cruise. Yes, just as paintings once juxtaposed human skulls and fresh fruit to impress upon their viewers the transitoriness of life, so Mr Cruise has become a kind of walking vanitas. A year younger than me (he turned 61 in July); while the actor may, by reason of his membership of the Church of Scientology, believe his mortal body is a mere temporary housing for a nigh-immortal super-being from another galaxy, the truth is he’s a meat-puppet manipulated by money.
A meat puppet that’s going off, and which is only kept remotely palatable by being encased in more and more layers of what looks suspiciously like clingfilm wrap. The face, that is – we don’t get to see much of Cruise’s no doubt still rippling physique in this, the seventh time he has reanimated his rogue-agent character, Ethan Hunt. And while Dead Reckoning: Part One – as is customary now, with blockbusters of this kind – sees the zeitgeist as integral to its bankability, it’s not just dependence on stars that should be Zimmering rather than shimmering that makes it seem so very dated.
It’s also the film’s recapitulation of all the most tired tropes of the action movie genre, from a lengthy pre-credit sequence in which the new super-evil rogue AI entity is birthed from a banjaxed Russian nuclear submarine’s stealth system, to the one in which Hunt and one of his improbable love interests (given he shares the inert sexual chemistry of his realiser, an actor who famously required coaching in order to simulate having sex with Nicole Kidman on the set of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), bump up and down, down and up, and up and down again the Spanish Steps in Rome, driving a vintage canary-yellow Fiat Cinquecento.
Along the way, the chief technological innovations that need to be incorporated are, of course, AI (but didn’t we have rogue entities birthed by human technologies trying to destroy the world as far back as… um, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis?), and the interleaving of the virtual and actual that characterises the contemporary sense of being-in-place. The big, set-piece sequence in MI sees Cruise/Hunt hunted through Abu Dhabi Airport, while both his face, and the faces of other passengers, are first recognised, then augmented, in real time, so as to frustrate his multiple pursuers’ computerised tracking systems.
This unites two fundamentals of modernity in one giant creative redundancy: as long as there have been regular long-distance travel services, their departure points have acquired the character of their destinations (think Gare de Lyon, as against Gare du Nord); so, if there’s a world-within-the-world of 2023, it’s going to be an international hub airport. The global citizens bouncing along its travelators, their features mutating at the push of a button, are, of course, the avatars of our couch-bound selves, fidgeting with the remote.
The problem for blockbuster action films is that they’re born of Newtonian physics: their most spectacular effects must involve the credible manipulations of matter in its grosser forms – this was the cinema born of industrial manufacture. But Mission: Impossible is cinema owing its very inception to coding, which is why there’s so much, um, coding on screen. The problem is its subject matter has become its own apotheosis: the collapse between the real and the representational; and it smacks of a culture going nowhere when its idea of high action is running round an airport terminal while images change on a computer screen.
Of course, sooner or later the distinction between Tom Cruise and his onscreen eidolon is going to collapse as well, and that’ll be a still less pretty sight.