Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie


He’s at it again and this time things are different… in that a couple of things are actually the same this time around. After jumping through a roster of prominent directors who each boast their own distinctive style – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird – Fallout is the first of the Mission: Impossible films to have a director return. Following his highly enjoyable Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie has stepped in once again to offer what is more or less a direct sequel, another break in precedent for the series. The story deals with the fallout (see what I did there?) from the events of the previous film, the female lead and the villain both return and the story-arc that was established for Cruise’s character is developed a little further. It isn’t hard to understand why Paramount signed McQuarrie up for another film and it’s not just because serialised franchises are the new thing in Hollywood right now. McQuarrie gets it. He gets what it is that people like about these movies, he gets Cruise’s appeal as a movie star and he knows how to make a decent action movie. Here he goes above and beyond and outdoes what he accomplished with Rogue Nation.

The remains of the Syndicate from the last film have reformed into the Apostles, a terrorist organisation hell-bent on creating chaos. That’s pretty much all you need to know about them. One of McQuarrie’s strengths is that he knows how to make a plot interesting without dwelling on the details. A movie like this needs a plot to keep things moving but it’s never the reason why anybody buys a ticket. We’re all here to see Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in his latest adventure where he must stop the Apostles in their quest to assemble and set off three nuclear bombs. They already have the plutonium they need after Ethan loses it in an operation where he was forced to choose between completing the mission and saving his team. His boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tasks him with recovering the plutonium by intercepting a weapons deal in Paris. He’s not going alone though. As well as his usual sidekicks Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take the imposing and ruthless August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that destroyed a franchise) along. This latest mission leads Ethan into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions made all the more complicated by the return of former foe Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and double agent/love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

The movie hits the ground running and it never stops. It’s not just that there’s so much action happening but also that there are so many different styles of action to enjoy. There’s a stormy skydiving scene, a bare-knuckled fight that Jason Bourne would call brutal, a sprinting scene to remind us what great shape Tom Cruise is still in at 56 and more. What McQuarrie brings is this extraordinary fluidity in movement that allows us to keep up with the action without losing track of it, a rarity in the modern Hollywood blockbuster that favours shaky-cam and rapid editing even when it blinds us to the act. The skydiving scene where Hunt and Walker are free-falling their way through a thunder storm was shot in a single take (or made to look like it was), allowing us to appreciate their peril in real time, and with enough distance that each figure is constantly in sight. Then there’s the climatic helicopter chase scene where the intense pursuit is intercut with two other nail-biting events and which may well be the most ambitious, insane and masterfully executed sequence in any of the films.

In his nearly forty-year career, Cruise has displayed remarkable longevity as he has continued to play action heroes with the commitment and stamina of a man half his age. With Fallout though, McQuarrie is interested in exploring how the series and its central character has evolved since it first started in 1996 and so it opts for Cruise to start showing his age a bit with some of the wear and tear that comes from living a life as Ethan Hunt. Thus he gets paired up with Cavill who towers over Cruise (which is admittedly not that difficult a task for a 6 ft. 1 actor standing opposite a 5 ft. 8 actor) and who looks like a younger, fitter, tougher counterpart of Hunt. While Walker goes after his targets with a machine-like determination and deals blows with bone-crushing impact, Hunt is stumbling more than he used to and his punches don’t land with the same level of force. Hunt will still win the day of course because that’s what he does and he’s been doing it for a long time (I was reminded at one point of that Indiana Jones quote, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”), but the strain is starting to show and it raises the question of how much longer Ethan Hunt and keep being Ethan Hunt.

And that leads us to the other big question the film is interested in exploring of why Hunt does what he does. Early on in Fallout he makes the choice to save Luther and Benji from danger and has to abandon his objective to do so. It is argued that Hunt is too protective of those he cares about and that he doesn’t have it in him to make the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for the greater good. Walker, an agent who works free of empathy and affection, is brought in to perform the role that Hunt is unable to fulfil, to let the few die so that the many may be saved. The contrast is a fascinating one as the film explores their differing methods and ideologies in an attempt to work out which is the better way. Near the end we’re given an insight into Hunt and his past which explains exactly how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good and it’s more profound than you might expect from this kind of movie.

When I say “this kind of movie” I of course refer to the Hollywood blockbuster, which doesn’t have the esteem it used to possess. With the endless sequels, reboots and other franchising dominating the box office these days, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the whole thing and to see the entire Hollywood industry as nothing more than as a mechanical profit-focused machine that has ceased to produce art and even entertainment in favour of commercial, demographically-targeted products. Even the movies themselves are getting pretty cynical these days (including the good ones like Logan, The Last Jedi, and Avengers: Infinity War). That’s why it’s important to remember that films like Mission: Impossible – Fallout are still being made by filmmakers like McQuarrie who care about what they do and about creating something special for the audience. This movie is an antidote to cynicism; it offers the kind of escapism that we crave from the movies and that leaves you feeling elated and ready to conquer the world. I’m all for introspective movies that ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and the world around us, but sometimes you want to forget about all that and just leave your body for a couple of hours to enjoy something exciting and fun. Fallout does not only offer that, but it also does it incredibly well.

★★★★★

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Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline


When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.

Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.

Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.

Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).

Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.

As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.

I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.

★★★

Star Trek Beyond

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba

Director: Justin Lin

Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung


I’m not a huge Star Trek fan. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t like it but rather in the sense that I haven’t watched enough of it to consider myself a huge fan. While I have watched all three instalments of the reboot, the only classic Star Trek movie I’ve ever gotten round to seeing is Wrath of Khan (which I found to be a better movie than any of the new ones). Therefore when I talk about the characters in this movie and the universe they inhabit, I do so from an unenlightened perspective. I am not intimately familiar with this franchise and have no substantive opinion of how a Star Trek movie is supposed to be done. The only fair standard I can set for this film is that provided by the J.J. Abrams movies, both of which I enjoyed but didn’t love. That is more or less how I feel about this movie as well.

Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) starts contemplating the endless nature of their voyage as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, making him one year younger than his father was when he died. While on shore leave Kirk is offered a promotion and recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his successor, should he accept that is. Spock meanwhile finds himself in a similarly dejected state after ending his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and receiving word that Ambassador Spock has died. The Enterprise is then sent on a rescue mission which turns out to be an ambush. The ship is destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba), a ruthless alien seeking revenge against the United Federation of Planets, and most of the crew is taken captive. Kirk manages to escape with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) while Spock escapes with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Stranded, scattered and crippled, it is up to Kirk to reunite his crew, find out what Krall is planning and save the Federation.

While I understand that the classic Star Trek movies were largely concerned with character-based drama and themes of morality and philosophy, these modern takes have leaned more heavily towards aspects of action/adventure. Although I’ve enjoyed these movies for the thrills they’ve provided, I have often felt that the stories and characters have left me wanting. While the characters in these films are certainly memorable, likeable and entertaining to watch, I’ve seldom found them to be truly compelling. In Star Trek Beyond there was a lot of potential for drama that the movie was able to set up but couldn’t quite follow through on. In Kirk’s arc for example it seems like the movie is trying to present him in a lost, estranged state, living under the shadow of the father he never knew and undergoing a crisis of identity. To me however, it just came across as Kirk being bored of his job. Spock, who lost his home planet in the first film and has learned of the passing of his alternate self, could have been allowed to confront issues of mortality, endurance and responsibility. Instead he breaks up with his girlfriend. Because these movies are so focused on getting to the action, there just isn’t enough time for them to really ask the big questions or to delve deeply into these characters. This doesn’t make them bad or boring, it just makes them somewhat unfulfilling.

Still, the action is often spectacular and is a nice change from the shaky cam and lens flares that often proved distracting in the Abrams movies. There are some incredible sequences in this film, such as Krall’s attack on the Enterprise, that had my heart racing. The action does get more generic in the third act but the ones that really work well are simply stunning. The movie also puts its excellent cast to good use, at least on an entertainment level. The banter between Spock and Bones is good for a few laughs. Pegg provides Scotty with plenty of moments in the spotlight and crushes them. Uhura isn’t given really given enough to do but Saldana is still able to deliver far more than what she was given. Pine has really grown into the role of Kirk and carries an undeniable air of authority befitting a strong and respected leader. The only disappointment was the villain who, despite Elba’s best efforts, is let down by a forgettable personality, vague motivations and a weak plot twist.

Star Trek Beyond is a good enough movie on a purely entertaining level. It has good characters portrayed by a superb cast, some great comedic highlights and plenty of action. It’s weakness, as with the previous two instalments, is its inability to give its story and character the depth that they deserve. The promise is there, the films just aren’t brave enough to follow through with it. Star Trek Beyond is thrilling and it is enjoyable, but there ultimately isn’t very much that separates it from all the other sci-fi/action blockbusters being made today. I may not have seen enough of the classic Star Trek movies and TV shows to claim any sort of authority where they are concerned, but what little I have seen I’ve found to be intelligent, captivating and unlike any big budget movie being made in this current climate. If these movies ever took the risk of putting the action in the backseat and allowed themselves to attempt that same level of innovation and nuance, we might have been treated to something truly special.

★★★

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie


What really surprises me about the Mission: Impossible franchise is how fresh and innovative it has remained in its 20-year history. Against all the odds, Mission: Impossible has managed to get bigger and better with each instalment (excluding John Woo’s ridiculously over-the-top contribution), Tom Cruise has remained a fun and entertaining action star with no sign of ageing or slowing down, and different directors with varying styles have allowed the franchise to evolve by adding their own unique spins. From Brian de Palma’s psychological thriller to J. J. Abrams’ hectic action to Brad Bird’s visual creativity, Mission: Impossible has proved itself to be an adaptable series and thus each entry is able to be new and original in its own way. This time around Christopher McQuarrie has taken the helm, a director whose style I was not very familiar with until I saw this film. Under his direction Rogue Nation offers its own unique approach for the exciting, over-the-top action that has become a staple of Mission: Impossible and is more than worthy as an addition to the franchise.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back and has caught the attention of The Syndicate, a secretive criminal organisation described as “an anti-IMF”, led by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Upon being captured by them, Hunt crosses paths with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a Syndicate operative who might actually be on his side and who helps him escape. While this is happening CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has set out to disband the IMF, forcing Hunt to go on the run as he sets out to take The Syndicate down. Along the way he enlists the help of his old teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) as they set out to do what they do best, the impossible.

Although I was not familiar with McQuarrie’s abilities as a director before watching this film, I was blown away by what he offered in Rogue Nation. He utilises a style that has been described as classicist as he employs an old-school method of anamorphic cinematography and of allowing the action to simply play out rather than resorting to shaky-cam or rapid editing. This method allows the grand size and epic stakes of the action to really sink in, made all the more impressive by the frequent use of practical effects and real stunts. Watching Ethan Hunt holding onto the side of a flying plane or holding his breath as he navigates his way through an underwater computer are all the more intensive to watch thanks to the focus and emphasis McQuarrie’s direction provides. One particular fight scene set in an opera house demonstrates his proficient ability to take advantage of his locations and use them to heighten the action. This is a director who knows how to take his time with the action without ever slowing it down, a talent that really pays off in this film.

The story itself does struggle at points, but it is all in all a more interesting and compelling story than is usually offered by this franchise. As Hunt goes head-to-head with The Syndicate he finds that they always seem to be one step ahead of him and that things may not be as they appear to be. Unlike some of the other female characters in the previous instalments whose roles amounted to little more than eye candy, Ilsa Faust stands as a fully-rounded character who adds an interesting dynamic to the story. During his encounters with her Hunt is never sure where Ilsa stands, whose side she is on or what her motivations are. Learning more about her character and waiting to see what she will do next is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. There were a couple of weaknesses that bothered me; the villain was probably its weakest point with Solomon Lane leaving not much of an impression beyond an intimidating stare, plus I would also have really liked it if the film actually gave Alec Baldwin something to do. However the positives outweigh the negatives in this case and provide an overall entertaining and thrilling experience.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is very good at being exactly what it has set out to be, a series of fun and exciting summer blockbusters with mind-blowing action. Rogue Nation is an excellent addition to the series and does an admirable job of putting a new spin on its traditional staples. The action is just as exhilarating and over-the-top as ever, Tom Cruise is as awesome and fun as ever and the spy stuff complete with masks and gadgets is just as cool and creative as ever. The inclusion of a gripping story with one particularly interesting character was a welcome addition and made Rogue Nation without question one of the strongest entries in the franchise. It may not be completely perfect but it was still the film I wanted to see when I entered the cinema. Anyone else who expects to see a fun summer blockbuster will not be disappointed.

★★★★