‘The critique of … the traditional concept of mise en scène thus opens one door: the challenge to think of what pre-exists the moment of shooting—whether we think of this along the documentary category of the pro-filmic, or some other distinct stage of the artifice of filmmaking—as itself already replete with all kinds of form (and meaning).’ (Martin 2011)
‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. And with that, the plane took off.’ (Christopher McQuarrie, director of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation; cited in Paramount Pictures 2015)
From his team’s vantage point, it looks like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) won’t have enough time. The giant aeroplane is pivoting in place, the engines are revving, and Hunt is nowhere to be seen. They watch, helpless, as the plane starts to lumber down the runway. Out of nowhere, though, as the plane picks up speed, Hunt appears, running full tilt, leaping from a grassy bank onto the plane’s giant wing. He sprints along it until the plane reaches full speed and he cannot maintain his footing. Hunt slides down the wing and then off it, managing to get a hold on the edge of the door. Hunt screams at his tech officer Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to remotely open the plane’s door. Dunn madly taps at his device, but he can’t do it in time, and the plane’s nose slowly lifts, and then the rest of the plane with it, Hunt clinging to the door for dear life.
By any measure, this opening scene, from Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015), is spectacular in the true sense of the word. One might assume that it’s the usual complex mixture of practical in-camera action, plates shot against a greenscreen, and sophisticated visual effects. But in fact, the entire sequence was shot for real, on an actual Airbus A400M Atlas, at RAF Wittering, with Tom Cruise performing the stunt himself: he was secured by cable to the Atlas, which then took off, flew about and landed eight times, until the filmmakers were satisfied with the shot.
This one sequence would be impressive if it was the only death-defying stunt carried out for filming. Later, for an underwater sequence, Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson trained to hold their breaths for up to six minutes. And this is only for this one film. The Mission: Impossible film franchise (1996-), produced wholly by Cruise with various partners (including Paula Wagner, Christopher McQuarrie and J. J. Abrams), is now renowned for pushing the boundaries of practical filmmaking and stunt work, with Cruise usually opting to train and perform these feats himself.
Why? Behind the scenes featurettes would have us believe that it lends credibility and excitement to the sequences, bringing the audience more intimately in touch with the action. And this is certainly true. But I would also contend that these sweat-inducing filmmaking achievements fly in the face of various ‘death of cinema’ narratives, picking a way through the glut of content towards a mode of storytelling that retains some sense of both higher concepts and cinematic spectacle.
These tentpole, practical stunts bring together mise en scène and dispositif. Mise en scène remains in the sense that cameras are lined up at certain angles, actors are dressed in curated clothes, and props (e.g. an enormous military aircraft) are chosen and procured. There remains a creative curation and combination of storytelling elements. However, there is a dispositif present in the environment that is necessarily created around the stunt; an environment, a system, a machinery, to borrow one of Foucault’s definitions, that is always at least partly dependent on chance, on sheer dumb luck — luck that will dictate (a) whether everything goes smoothly, i.e. no one is hurt and nothing is damaged (unintentionally), and (b) whether the intended stunt and shot is achieved.
In the case of the Mission: Impossible films, the genuine, credible reality of the stunts operates in direct contradiction to the utter absurdity of the outlandish plot. What results is disbelief, joy, suspense, a riveting frisson that keeps our eyes glued to the screen. We don’t know if Ethan Hunt will survive because we don’t know for sure that Tom Cruise will, either. Recent films and franchises such as John Wick (2014-), Atomic Blonde (2017) and The Raid (2011-14) have foregrounded practical stunts and fight choreography to ‘ground’ their action, but the Mission: Impossible series has been pushing the boundaries here for a quarter century.
Cinema is spectacle writ large — and I mean spectacle broadly conceived here, be it an explosive action sequence or emotional devastation etched into the expression of a talented actor. And cinema is not dead as long as there are executive producers and financiers willing to bankroll spectacle, and as long as audiences are willing to pay to see it, be that in the form of movie tickets or on-demand home media.
Martin, Adrian (2011), ‘Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif’, Screening the Past, 31, http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-31-first-release/turn-the-page-fro....
Paramount Pictures (2015), ‘Cruising Altitude’ (Bluray featurette), Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures.