Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning – a modern spy film that knows the value of old tech

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One is a pulsatingly entertaining spy film that combines frenetic action, globetrotting visuals and spectacular set pieces.

The film is the latest in a near 30-year franchise (itself an adaptation of a popular 1960s TV spy series), Mission Impossible is characterised by state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Dead Reckoning confronts the implications of over-reliance on digital technology.

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) as a fundamental threat to concepts of truth and reality provides the film with an intriguing (and timely) central antagonist.

The team must go back to basics and rediscover the merits of physical archives, analogue communication systems and personal friendships to thwart the relentless information-gathering algorithm of the all-seeing “Entity”.

Digital heritage

Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, a now-ageing spy tasked with finding the (literal) key to the AI mainframe. His mission briefing is refreshingly low-key, concealed within an Uber Eats-style food delivery.

The package contains an old-school Dictaphone cassette tape and several printed photographs. It is a nod to the original TV series and a throwback to the pre-digital age of cold war spycraft. It’s a far cry from the technological innovations of previous Mission Impossible films and an early indication of the intrinsic value of the traditional objects and methods of espionage.

With cloud-based information systems developing sentience and playing havoc with global security, governments and intelligence agencies must revert to retro tools to create physical records. The humble typewriter – a mainstay of 20th century western spy films – makes a comeback, generating mountains of paperwork as the authorities attempt to preserve sensitive data, which is now compromised by online connectivity.

The ongoing value of seemingly obsolete technology is a key theme in Dead Reckoning, despite the franchise’s reputation for high-tech inventions. At one stage, an analogue satellite previously donated to a local weather station is re-appropriated for an operations control room. This allows surveillance to continue offline, but also indicates how extensively military technologies have been assimilated into public and civilian life.

The cigarette lighter that Hunt uses throughout the film as a mark of his identity is an incongruous piece of kit for a dedicated nonsmoker. It recalls the famous cigarette lighter belonging to George Smiley in John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is a symbol of the character’s all-too-human flaws. Hunt’s own lighter is an emblem of his ingenuity.

Missed connections

The human capacity to make mistakes, act illogically and think creatively gives the team a fighting chance to outsmart the machine. Friendship and loyalty are shown to be both a weakness and a strength when trying to stay one step ahead of the calculated manipulations of Entity.

Disconnected from online systems, Hunt and his team must rediscover their offline bonds. They are forced to rely on each other’s emotional decision making – with all the associated flaws, inconsistencies and contradictions – to get them through. Ultimately, it is Hunt’s capacity for mercy that throws a metaphorical spanner into the works and (for now) allows him to retake control of the narrative.

Man and woman hang in an train carriage.
Tom Cruise.
Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

Dead Reckoning Part One has been released against the backdrop of Twitter’s transition from a functioning social platform to a glitch-ridden shadow of its former self. The film makes the case for finding alternative, offline ways of building and nurturing relationships. It points to the limitations of digital networks and the value of human connections.

By drawing attention to the technological heritage of typewriters, cassette tapes and analogue satellites, the film also acknowledges its own place in the spy genre. Mission Impossible has been going for 30 years and even if newer spy franchises come along, this one isn’t outdated yet.

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