The Mission: Impossible film series has been going on for so long that the first movie was about heisting floppy disks. Watching it today, it may as well have been about boosting Betamax players lined with asbestos. People born after that first one are now legally able to vote, rent porn, and drink to the point of enjoying Mission: Impossible 2. And yet somehow these movies are still going strong. So we'd like to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to highlight the genius that is Mission: Impossible -- Fallout.
Why is the most recent entry in this aged series so damn good? After all, by their sixth movie, Friday The 13th had already killed off and revived Jason Voorhees roughly 5,000 times. Perhaps what makes Fallout stand out in our nostalgia-filled culture (in which every piece of intellectual property that ever appeared on a T-shirt gets a fresh-faced reinvention) is that it's basically an anti-reboot. Fallout is a two-and-a-half-hour repudiation of everything reboot culture is about. Sure, the original movie was a hip reinvention of a classic TV series featuring an attractive young cast and a hip new version of the theme song by the two more affordable members of U2. But even that movie was oddly subversive, making the hero of the TV show into the film's villain.
These days, we're constantly inundated with "fresh" takes on old franchises in which a cast of young characters take the reigns from established characters played by haggard actors you grew up watching, be it Spock, Han Solo, Rocky Balboa, or multiple geriatric Terminators. The recent Mission: Impossible movies contrive similar character dynamics, only to reject them. Take Jeremy Renner in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol. When he was first cast, it was widely reported that he was "being groomed to replace Tom Cruise."
After all, Cruise was almost 50. Why not hand off the franchise to someone 10 years his junior? Renner, it seemed, had become the understudy for movie super spies, set to take over for Ethan Hunt just as he did (briefly) for Jason Bourne. But when Ghost Protocol came out, Renner's character is a pencil-pushing weenie, whereas Ethan Hunt scales the tallest building in the entire goddamn world. Renner only existed to threaten Cruise, then make him look awesome by comparison. And since Matt Damon decided to do another Bourne movie, Renner was forced to turn to the douchey celebrity app industry.
In Fallout, they similarly pair Cruise with a hot young actor, Henry Cavill -- yeah, fucking Superman. Cavill also starred in his own movie update of a 1960s spy show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. So this real-world threat to Cruise's career is introduced as a rival to Hunt. But even though Cavill may be younger, handsomer, and more ripped than Axl Rose's jeans, Hunt consistently shows us that he is the more valuable character. We get multiple scenes wherein Hunt shows off how much tougher and more capable he is than Cavill's CIA goon, Walker. Whether that's winning a fistfight with an enemy who bested Walker, even after he cocked his arm guns (and magically sprouted more facial hair) ...
... or saving Walker's life after he passes out parachuting. This in a scene that was accomplished not with green screen, but by actually having Cruise and a dude with a camera on his head jump out of an airplane.
In the end (SPOILERS), Walker ends up being not just a cocky D-bag, but the actual villain. Meaning that Tom Cruise saves the day not just by preventing a nuclear holocaust, but by eradicating any threat to his stardom. Young people dig the Mission: Impossible movies because they're full of amazing action, but older audiences love them because (not unlike Star Trek) they tap into a fundamental fear: One day you will die and be replaced. Ethan's struggles against his strapping young rivals are a struggle against death itself.
Unlike other franchise blockbusters, Fallout doesn't shy away from aging. Rather, the film embraces it. Unlike the James Bond series, which swaps out its star for a younger model every decade or so, Ethan Hunt hasn't just gotten old, but accrued two decades' worth of emotional baggage. His life has piled up with friends and loved ones, and they've become his ultimate weakness. In Fallout's opening, Ethan's love for Luther, who he met way back in the first movie, is what leads to the plutonium getting stolen. If it wasn't for that, Fallout would have been over before you've even had the chance to get annoyed at the teenagers sitting behind you. Similarly, Ethan's ex-wife Julia is still in danger due to his work, and as we see in the opening dream sequence, those anxieties are consuming him.
And it's Ethan's fears that inspire the title. The villainous Solomon Lane spells it out. "Fallout" doesn't just refer to nuclear fallout, but the emotional fallout from the possible loss of his loved ones
In other words, Ethan's refusal to reboot, to deny the connections he's made in previous stories, means that he's made himself as vulnerable as, well, most human beings. Ethan's past (the first five movies) aren't something to be shrugged off. The film suggests this with subtle nods to the earlier films, whether it's Ethan jumping across tall buildings like in Ghost Protocol ...
... or rock climbing like in Mission: Impossible 2.
Not only does this movie reference that moment, but it's how Ethan saves the world. When he's fighting with Walker at the end, they end up on the side of a cliff, clinging to the same rope.
But Ethan has a moment of clarity. He doesn't need the rope. He knows how to mountain climb! So he loses the rope and lets Walker fall to his death.
And Ethan's contact, the White Widow, turns out to be the daughter of Max from the first movie. It's not just a token reference to Ethan's past, but a reminder of how goddamn old he is.
Oddly enough, Ethan never really changes. His arc is that he doesn't have an arc. His journey is a steadfast refusal to give up. Only the characters in his orbit seem to change, usually by coming to the realization that Ethan was right all along. In Fallout, Ethan flirts with the idea of changing and becoming a darker, edgier version of himself.
But that's revealed to be a fantasy. He rejects a gritty reboot, and in the end succeeds thanks to good old-fashioned positivity. He essentially gives himself a pep talk and doesn't succumb to negative thinking.
That positivity is also what allows him to make those emotional ties that, while they make him a worse cold-blooded agent, also make his life meaningful. Which is especially important in the broader context of aging and confronting death. Ethan saves the day, but the story ends not with an exciting Bond-like climax, but with what feels more like a near-death experience: a flash of light, followed by Ethan lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by friends.
It's a moving commentary on the meaning of life itself. To forge relationships, regardless of their frailty, isn't a weakness; it's what gives every moment a sense of purpose. Or it's all part of an elaborate Scientology allegory. Either way, it's nice.
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