Auteurist Roots in Mission: Impossible

I went to see “Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation” over the weekend. It’s the fifth installment in a franchise that’s nearly twenty years old and yet I was shocked by how improbably good it is; it may be the best one of the lot.

This video by Sean Witzke for Grantland (part of their recent Tom Cruise Week) makes a case that at least part of this series’ surprising longevity is owed to its unique conception as a kind of auteurist playground. Over five installments, these movies have been helmed by five different directors, each of whom brought his own distinctive vision to bear, and largely to good effect. Few characters and even fewer plotlines persist from sequel to sequel, and so much emphasis is given to each director’s own stylistic voice that the five films barely seem connected to one another.

What unites them all is Cruise himself—not just his centrality as the principal character, but also his sensibilities as producer. Though few would call him an auteur, Cruise has created a unique franchise in which his charismatic center of gravity allows the fictional world around him to be continually re-imagined by others who are more commonly acknowledged as film visionaries. In an age when studios are desperate to create “universes” of shared actions and consequences, the “Mission: Impossible” films stand out for being episodic in the loosest sense—more like an anthology than the bombastically scaled serials currently in favor.

It’s also notable how the series’ gender politics have evolved in unexpected and strange ways. On the one hand, the only characters who make it from sequel to sequel are men; each new movie discards the female characters from the previous one entirely.

In and of itself that’s disappointing but not unprecedented; the James Bond series takes almost exactly the same tack. But in 007’s world, that’s largely done so that Bond can move on to new and different romantic interests. By contrast, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt may have started with some nominal Lothario-like qualities at the beginning of the series, but as the franchise wore on, the scripts became less and less interested in not just romance, but the notion of Cruise as a sexual being.

After trying to marry off Hunt in the third installment and then quickly discarding that conceit altogether, Cruise’s character now seems not at all capable of any meaningful human intimacy. He barely acknowledges the sexuality of his female co-star in the fourth installment, and while his character makes a significant emotional connection with (the amazing) Rebecca Ferguson in “Rogue Nation,” its culmination is no more intense than a hug. Seriously; a hug. Not only that but—spoiler alert—the plot conspires such that Ferguson does most of the rescuing in the film, rather than vice versa.

There’s a lot that you can read into the subtext there, especially if you factor in the many rumors about Cruise’s personal life into the on-screen content. But what’s interesting to me is how the “Mission: Impossible” series has unexpectedly turned into the very best kind of genre film. On it surface, it has a formulaic approach to good guys, bad guys, girls with guns, and MacGuffins, but as you look deeper, you see not only real auteurs at work but lots of interesting ideas, both intentional and unintentional.