There are many complaints I have about cinema; its timidity, its intolerance of appetite, its dependence on established ideas. (These stand opposed to my complaints about cinemas – lack of visible seating plans, tolerance of people putting their feet up on the seats in front, beautiful London theatres partitioned off leading to tiny screens). I sometimes place too much weight on that last complaint. Movies have always been remade, they have always been based upon established properties (chiefly, literature). I remember reading an issue on Empire back in in 2003 (where I was already at an age where I should have known better) and it complained of the dependency on sequels in that summer’s prospects. If only they could see what it looks like now.
I also have complaints about complaints. Aside from the insufferable dick-waving one-upmanship of who is the most woke film writer (‘I’m so woke I won’t even contemplate sex or race or gender’ is the new dominant theme), there is the intolerable fallow-minded argument of the current superiority of television. Television operates as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome media – spend enough time with a TV series and you will love it regardless of its flaws. Television will always appear to have greater depth than cinema, simply because it has a longer running time. It operates within tedious parameters that never have to apply to cinema – the sound design on television has to be set at a certain level to hear dialogue, for instance. The most recent season of Master of None proved how tedious, how pseudo-intellectual (black-and-white episode, working-class people episode – yuck, yuck, yuck) even an intermittently entertaining programme can be.
So we have a cinematic landscape that simultaneously aspires to be televisual whilst maintaining established intellectual properties… it’s not a promising landscape (it’s a bit like Dymchurch in that sense). But one man has been able to straddle this vast unpromising chasm… J. J. Abrams. And so I complain about him. Because it’s kind of unbearable to me that one man could be the ‘New New Spielberg’ and waste that influence on existing properties. (Of course, M. Night Shyamalan was the ‘New Spielberg’ – though it occurs to me, what was Robert Zemeckis?) Five movies now, and only one of them has been an idea of his own – though in all fairness, he has produced a greater number of films by other directors that are based on original ideas. But within his own body of work, he has explicitly re-trod the ground worn by others, bringing little to the table except an excess of lens-flare.
But is this fair? Or like all prejudices, is it something we need to examine and challenge? Because as much as I like to dismiss his films, as much as I like to play the contrarian and claim that a George Lucas Force Awakens would be better than an Abrams Force Awakens, I can’t help but begrudgingly like his movies to one degree or another.
So it’s come to this… Abrams as an auteur. But is he worthwhile?
* * *
In 2017, Tom Cruise is determined to hold onto his stardom. His career is now dependent on the franchises he has to his name – his woefully mis-cast Jack Reacher (great first film, terrible sequel) series, the Dark Universe (whatever the fuck that is?) series and Mission: Impossible. It is the position he has been forced into by an unimaginative industry. The last couple of times he has tried to build something new in the film industry – the science-fiction double of Oblivion (2013 – Joseph Kosinski) and Edge of Tomorrow (posthumously retitled as Live. Die. Repeat.) (2014 – Doug Liman) – are unfairly perceived to be failures. But back in 2006, it would be unfair to call Mission: Impossible a franchise by our modern standards.
Cruise had long resisted the action picture in the early part of his career, instead choosing to spend his time working with as many established directors as he could. Even when he finally took the plunge, he insisted on an old-school director – Brian De Palma – helming the nominally action based movie. Cruise is a traditionalist – one of the uncommented aspects of his career is his insistence on shooting his movies on celluloid, and he annually contributes at least one million dollars to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. The follow up, M:I-2 (2000) is one of the more disappointing entries in John Woo’s foray into Hollywood (better than Windtalkers though). But neither of these films suggested a franchise, and Cruise’s interest in having a different director shoot each entry with little continuity between each instalment seems to actively work against any idea of a ‘shared universe’ (these habits have only recently been abandoned as Christopher McQuarrie returns to direct M:I 6).
Cruise’s choice to place Abrams as director of Mission: Impossible III belies the televisual beginnings of the concept. Abrams was an established television showrunner, at the time living off the heat from Alias and Lost, and at times, M:I III feels like an episode of some sixties super-spy series. The Vatican heist, in particular with its ludicrous costume changes and relatively basic technology could easily have been a sequence in one of the original television shows. If we’re being clever, we could imagine this as some kind of meta-commentary on the film series, but in reality, Abrams has a curious tendency to throw away key action sequences in his film. His set-pieces never feel like set-pieces, such is his unwillingness to revel in the spectacle of what’s in front of him. His reliance on a close-up, shaky-cam style of framing denies the audience any opportunity to gain a coherent understanding of what’s going on in front of him. It is something, that on the advice of cartoonist Bryan Hitch, he rectifies for the Enterprise shots in Star Trek (2009).
It’s strange, because of all of his years in television, we don’t treat M:I III as a first film. Because it very much feels like one. As a visual stylist, Abrams is very much unformed at this stage. His aforementioned tics – his irritating use of lens-flare in particular – don’t feel out of place within mainstream, big budget cinema. It’s just… it feels a little ‘hack-y’. Like its some photocopied, bootleg version of a visual style. There are moments when Abrams presents unseen flashbacks (these are technically flashbacks-within-flashbacks as the majority of the film is leading up to a moment we have already seen), but he does so with little cause or intent. So we over-emphasise, the choices he does make, such as the pseudo-mythical ‘rabbit’s foot’ MacGuffin that drives the plot of this film. It is at times like this when I despair of auteur theory, how it forces us to over-praise even the most insignificant thematic or visual iconography that any director employs across a body of work.
At the heart of all the Mission: Impossible films lies Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Like all great cinematic spies, he is a blank slate – a character without character. The qualities that we give to him – decency, bravery, trustworthiness – are painted with the broadest of brushes. Hunt, with his constant apparatus of masks and false identities, remains more vague and ill-defined than any Bonds, Bournes or Saints. It just seems that Abrams took this to heart, and became a blank slate himself. Mission: Impossible III is about as competent a film as is possible. It is momentarily exciting, compelling and well-performed. But there is nothing in it which is even occasionally dangerous or messy. So Abrams becomes ‘a safe pair-of-hands’.