Over the next week, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout. (Read our previous entries here.)
The ludicrously dubbed “Impossible Mission Force,” the imaginary federal agency at the heart of the Mission: Impossible franchise, is difficult to define. Its members are international superspies with a gift for stagecraft; imagine MI6, but with an elaborate makeup department, a healthy CGI budget, and a flair for dramaturgy. Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) and his pals might combat villains by jumping off a building or executing a daring car chase, but they’re also fond of masks and voice-changers, and they always seem to have a wardrobe of disguises in tow. “The IMF is like Halloween, a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat,” sighs the CIA chief Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett).
But the beginning of Fallout, the sixth entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise, suggests that the world has gotten too grim for fun and games. When the series launched in 1996, it was a hearty throwback, reviving a hit 1967 TV show for the decade’s biggest star. By 2018, Hunt is a man haunted by his years in the field, a marriage he had to abandon for work, and villains that are hell-bent not on financial gain or political power, but on apocalyptic destruction. Fallout is the third Mission: Impossible in a row in which the bad guy has decided that Earth is beyond saving and needs to be annihilated. And at its beginning, that’s exactly what seems to have happened.
In the film’s first scene, a sting operation to seize plutonium that’s floating around on the black market goes wrong, with Hunt saving his teammates and letting the fissile material get away. Fade to: a CNN broadcast, hosted by Wolf Blitzer, saying that three nuclear attacks have devastated Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca. “We can assume the death toll is catastrophic,” Blitzer intones in the background of a hospital room, as Hunt enters to interrogate the captured scientist Nils Debruuk (Kristoffer Joner), who is suspected of building the bombs for the terrorist John Lark. It’s classic good cop/bad cop: Hunt threatens to kill Debruuk, is restrained by his fellow agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and then reluctantly assents to Debruuk’s request that Lark’s nihilistic manifesto be read on-air by Blitzer. Satisfied with the political triumph, Debruuk confesses.
It speaks to just how grim big Hollywood franchises have gotten that I fell for it. After all, this was the year that saw the Avengers movie end with half the heroes getting zapped into dust and antiheroes such as Venom and Deadpool rule the box-office roost. Maybe the Mission: Impossible creative team decided it had to raise the stakes and kick things off with something truly unthinkable, rather than relying on the usual high-tech, gadget-fueled fun. Debruuk’s confession is followed by one of the most satisfying, and ridiculous, rug-pulls of the series. His hospital room is revealed to be a facsimile, constructed by the IMF. Wolf Blitzer is the agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), wearing a rubber mask. “Told you we’d get it,” Blitzer crows, satisfied.
The hilarious twist—which helps the IMF track the location of the missing plutonium—serves as a mission statement for the movie, and the series at large, one that the film doubles down on for the rest of its running time. The IMF might be playing Halloween, reliant on absurd theatricality rather than brute strength, but that’s why people buy tickets: They’re here to see Hunt and company cleverly wriggle their way out of every situation, not do battle in a world that’s already aflame. Beginning a 2018 blockbuster with a literal “fake news” sequence might have felt like a cheap bit of topicality from another franchise, but Fallout’s version serves as a reminder that international spy thrillers don’t have to be all death and destruction to make an impact. The real world might seem on the brink of chaos, but at least in the theater, Ethan Hunt is always on hand to drag it back to safety through sheer force of will.
Previously: Leave No Trace
Next Up: A Star Is Born