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The plot is a mess but it’s the failure of theme that’s the real problem.

What’s Wrong with Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Film Crit Hulk recently released a video essay about the action scenes in Christopher McQuarrie’s 2018 spy thriller, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It’s a good essay but I was surprised by how complementary the Hulk was about the film. It got me wondering if perhaps I’d been too harsh in my original assessment.

In that review, I criticised the movie primarily for its plot, writing:

My central issue with this movie is the plot. One calibrates one’s expectations accordingly for an action blockbuster but the number of twists and reversals in the plans of each of the characters quickly reaches comic proportions …robbing the film of the tension it’s so desperately reaching for.

I still think the plot is the key problem with the film but the reason it’s a problem has shifted.1

In 2018, another video essayist, Patrick Willems, released a video, ‘Shut Up About Plot Holes’, criticising the way in which certain people (i.e nerds) fixate on logical inconsistencies in movie plotting. Willems explained:

You can find plot holes and logic gaps in any movie and if you want to, go right ahead. Just don’t tell me that those are genuine flaws and problems and reasons that a movie is bad. Because they’re not. None of these things actually matter because they’re not what a movie is about.

Willems reluctantly concludes that people who do this are ‘watching movies wrong’. I agree with the thrust of his argument but it does raise the awkward question of whether I’m making the same mistake with Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Am I watching the movie wrong?

When Willems pleads for critics of movies to focus on what a movie is about he’s really talking about theme. He gives as an example Die Hard, describing it as being about an ordinary man trying to reunite with his wife.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is a series of silly, big-budget films in which we indulge in the fantasy that the great perils that exist in the world can be solved by one good man stopping one bad man. Recent instalments in the series have feigned vaguely in the direction of questioning whether having an unaccountable government agency do whatever it wants in the name of the greater good is such a swell idea but generally conclude that yes, it is.

So what’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout about? Well, it’s ostensibly about a spy deciding whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice others to achieve a mission. That’s not the true theme (more on that below) but it’s what the movie presents itself as being about.

We see this theme clearly in the dialectic the film establishes between our hero, IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, and our villain, the mysterious extremist John Lark.2 Ethan jump-starts the story when he decides not to sacrifice his friend, Luther, and instead loses the plutonium cores that Lark wants to use as nuclear weapons. In contrast, Lark’s plan to use those nuclear weapons involves the sacrifice of billions of individuals to create a better world.

So that’s the theme. How do the logic flaws in the movie relate to it? Well, first let’s list some of the more egregious ones:

  • If the Apostles have already been hired by Lark, why are they using the White Widow? Ethan is told at the beginning of the film that Lark is a client of the Apostles. If he’s a client, why do the Apostles need a broker?

  • Why do the Apostles want Lark to free Lane? Lark as presented in the film is an extremist with no significant resources. The Apostles are an organisation of ex-spies who have the capacity to steal plutonium cores from under the nose of an IMF agent and seed a smallpox outbreak in a remote part of India.

  • Why is the White Widow in charge of the plan to free Lane? Although the White Widow says that freeing Lane is the price the Apostles have set for the plutonium, it’s the White Widow who plans the escape and provides the resources to make it happen. Why does she do this? She was going to find another buyer if Lark didn’t show up at the club in Paris, so why not just set the Apostles up with one of these other buyers and avoid all that risk?

  • Why does MI6 suddenly want Lane dead? We’re told that Lane was captured two years ago and has been shared amongst various governments over that period. If that’s the case, why is the British Government concerned now that he’ll disclose something? Hasn’t he been in their custody at some point prior to the events of the film? Why didn’t they kill him then?

  • Why does MI6 extort Ilsa to kill Lane? MI6 has other operatives, why use Ilsa for this mission? Why is she not supported by anyone else? Why does Ilsa believe that MI6 will ever let her go?

  • Why does Lane want to die? Lane chooses to remain in the village even though this will result in his death. If he wants to see Ethan’s demise, why doesn’t Lane take steps to ensure that Ethan is brought to the village and can’t get away?

None of the logic flaws identified above are in service of some question of whether it’s appropriate to sacrifice others to achieve a mission. However, they are in service of some one: Solomon Lane. Indeed, this is what the film is really about. It’s about the fact that Solomon Lane is a cool villain and it would be cool if he were in another movie.

To be clear, Solomon Lane is a cool villain and I would like to see him another movie but if McQuarrie wanted to bring him back, he should have made Fallout about something that would have had that make sense.

All of this is especially frustrating because McQuarrie completely nailed it on his first attempt. I watched Rogue Nation the night after watching Fallout and it is a master class in relating your conflict to your theme.

To wit, Rouge Nation is about a spy deciding when it’s appropriate to ignore orders. However, unlike Fallout, this really is the theme of the film and all the conflicts relating back to it in some way. As in the sequel, McQuarrie establishes a dialectic between hero and villain except it’s done in a more interesting way. While Fallout positions hero and villain at diametric extremes, Rogue Nation sets them up as awkward neighbours. Both Ethan and Lane ignore their orders. In Ethan’s case, he justifies it because he wants to stop chaos. In Lane’s, because he wants to foment it.

Rogue Nation is also similar to Fallout in that it features an additional antagonist. In this case, Ilsa, working for MI6 as a double agent in the Syndicate. Ilsa’s conflicts are also thematically appropriate. Unlike Ethan and Lane, Ilsa follows her orders even though she believes they’re wrong and wants to stop. Ethan and Lane vie for her allegiance in a way that relates back to the theme. Ethan pushes Ilsa to ignore her orders and help stop the Syndicate. Lane pushes Ilsa to ignore her orders and join the Syndicate.

Rouge Nation is not without its own logic flaws. Why does MI6 put the virtual red box with the information on the funds for the Syndicate in a secure facility in Morocco? Indeed, why is there even a secure facility in a Moroccan power station? However, even this, while making no logical sense, has the virtue of at least relating back to the theme. After all, the reason the red box is there is because Chief Attlee ignored his orders not to proceed with the project.

It’s a shame that Fallout‘s plot shows none of the skill of its predecessor. It also fills me with trepidation given that Cruise is having McQuarrie write and direct the seventh and eight Mission: Impossible adventures. Fingers crossed Rogue Nation wasn’t a fluke. ✺

  1. I do think the film has a problem with tension but that’s for reasons that aren’t germane to this essay so will leave that for a future discussion.

  2. There are arguably four villains: John Lark, the Apostles, the White Widow and Solomon Lane. That the film has four villains is also one of its problems but, again, not germane right now.