By Ninad Adawadkar
Oct 13, 2023
There’s an amusing image in the early stretch of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. A bunker of intelligence agency personnel urgently transcribes security intel — on typewriters. The year is 2023, but this shift from digital to analog is necessitated by the film’s big bad. An A.I. program gone rogue, or a “self-learning, truth-eating digital parasite” as one of the characters refers to it. This program known as The Entity, has infiltrated a Russian submarine’s security system and fooled its missiles into turning on itself in the film’s opening scene.
The Mission: Impossible series itself (of which this is the seventh, with Part Two expected to release in 2024) has been defined by its star Tom Cruise’s commitment to analog, old-school filmmaking. Much of the thrill comes from knowing it is really him out there — motorbiking off cliffs, hanging off planes, and scaling the Burj Khalifa with only harnesses and insurance riders to break his fall. The plots and MacGuffins (an object or device in a film or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot) set off the fuse on a chain of obstacles that Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his teammates must survive to complete the titular impossible mission.
The MacGuffins from the first three Mission: Impossible films offer a neat summary of the political preoccupations of the late nineties and early aughts. The unchecked authority afforded to US Intelligence Services, Big Pharma overreach, and the follies of the war in the Middle East are all name-checked. But after a few entries that have relied on the good old “nuclear codes in the wrong hands” trope, the series finds a notable antagonist in A.I.
Through the course of the film, “The Entity” is able to impersonate one of Ethan’s teammates over audio communication, predict his actions (as if working from the data set of the six prior films in the series) to fatal consequences, and alter all kinds of digital data (CCTV footage, defense code) in manners undetectable to the human eye. At one point, it orchestrates a massive blowout party in the Venetian ruins to gather all the characters for a tense standoff. “The Entity” does require assistance from a flesh-and-blood henchman, Gabriel (played by Esai Morales, and perhaps named after the archangel with the power to announce God's will to humans). Rendering human hands, and trading punches with pesky secret service operatives, are two struggles A.I. has yet to overcome.
While the film’s development predates the A.I. boom of the last two years, it comes out in a year when some of these nefarious A.I. deployments are not merely plausible, but a reality as visible and disorienting as the digital de-aging on Cruise’s face in a flashback sequence. After all, Putin has declared war and peace in scarily real-seeming videos, one of which was even broadcast on Russian radio and television stations. A.I. voice cloning has had adverse effects on the livelihood of voiceover artists, as well as technologically-challenged senior citizens vulnerable to phone call scams. Are these flavor-of-the-month boogeymen or canaries in the coal mine? Depends on who you ask. But what the film does get right is that destabilizing democracies through sheer informational chaos might be the new global arms race. Think a “firehose of falsehood,” or Cambridge Analytica without the contingency of a whistleblower.
Hollywood blockbuster storytelling is a curious beast — simultaneously limited and extreme in its imagination. The internet, and now A.I. have proven particularly fertile ground for films that are prescient and dazzlingly imaginative, or just very silly, and sometimes both. On the sillier end of the spectrum lie Y2K anxiety-inflicted 1995 thrillers like Hackers (computer virus causes oil spills), The Net (computer virus steals, then erases Sandra Bullock’s identity), and Johnny Mnemonic (Keanu Reeves must protect sensitive data on a storage device implanted in his brain). The Y2K (Year 2000) problem was a global technological concern in the 1990s. Many computer systems, chips, and software at the time stored dates using only two digits for the year (e.g., "99" for 1999). As a result, there was fear that when the year rolled over to 2000, these systems might interpret it as 1900, potentially causing severe errors in financial, health, and other digital infrastructures. These films tap into the paranoia of our identities and systems entwined with the online world, creating a dangerous codependency.
A few years later in 1999, The Matrix reframed the internet as a realm of fascination and possibility. In 2002, Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, based on a novella by Philip K. Dick. Minority Report imagines a world where all crime is predicted, and hence, averted before it happens. While A.I. might make this a reality at some point, Report’s lasting legacy is to predict the logical endpoint of that technological advancement — targeted advertising. Would you be surprised if tomorrow, Amazon just delivered the lightbulb you’ve been intending to replace, cutting out the middleman (i.e. you) altogether? You would probably, but would you mind?
Learning to coexist with A.I. is equal parts preternatural and poignant. What we’re watching is the human brain trying to make sense of a double exponential — “playing four-dimensional chess with an algorithm,” as someone warns Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning. In Part Two, Hunt will embark upon a journey to find the second half of a physical key that holds the source code for “The Entity,” and consequently, the power to shut it down. It is a pleasingly tactile failsafe that doesn’t currently exist in the real world. I sure hope he finds it. So that we can go back to opponents that can be punched or outwitted.