On Thursday, October 20, Paramount Pictures invited a small group of journalists to screen 20 minutes of footage from the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible series, Ghost Protocol, which was directed by Brad Bird. Producer Brian Burk introduced the clips, which were screened at a theater featuring IMAX presentation since Bird shot them using the large-screen format, and he then previewed their immersive clarity as a glimpse of what audiences have in store for them when the film opens on December 21, 2011.
The first scene featured Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, Paula Patton as Jane Carter, Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn, and Jeremy Renner as Brandt, as the four of them drive through a dusty desert landscape. Hunt explains that they have to keep two parties from meeting one another, which will involve them infiltrating Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, taking control of its operating systems, and switching both locations and identities so that the involved parties will actually believe they’ve met, even when they haven’t. Bird makes complete use of the IMAX canvas and he transitions from a shot of the group driving to an aerial shot of the Burj Khalifa, which the camera swoops over, highlighting its 2700-foot height.
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The group easily enters the building and the team members fly into action. Despite his expertise with computers, however, Benji confesses he’s going to be unable to hack into the building’s computer system, requiring one of their members to actually scale the outside of the building, climb up several floors, and break into the room where the mainframe is held. Ethan agrees to go after Benji gives him a pair of gloves that allow him to stick to the glass of the building like a human spider, and after Brandt and Benji remove the glass from the window frame, Ethan ventures out onto the side of the building.
While the shots looking out on the city below certainly did a great job of highlighting how high the characters are, Bird chooses camera angles that augment the visceral power of not just that height, but the reality of Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in the world, going out onto the side of a building by himself. The camera extends above Cruise’s head as he steps out to grab the glass, and the audience is shown first-hand how vertiginous and real the dangers of the stunt are that Cruise is performing – and performing himself. In an era in which CGI and green-screen allows actors to accomplish impossible feats, there’s something both impressive and terrifying about an A-list actor subjecting himself to something so difficult and genuinely life-threatening. (The featurette Paramount released on Wednesday only further highlights Cruise’s commitment to authenticity.)
After a perilous climb up the side of the building, he reaches his destination, and must then get back down to the room where the group is stationed. Using a fire hose, he scales down the side of the building, only to discover that it isn’t long enough, and he’s still a good ten or fifteen feet away from the window – and worse yet, ten or twenty feet away horizontally as well. While we’ll leave it for you to discover how the scene plays out, suffice it to say that there might not be a franchise any longer if Ethan Hunt didn’t survive. But the payoff of the scene is absolutely thrilling, and Bird’s camera work and Cruise’s willingness to perform the stunts himself gives the sequence a kind of reality that few other stunts in recent films have benefited from. Moreover, the IMAX is spectacularly clear, and the audience feels like it’s a bee dropped right into the middle of the action, and forced to dangle alongside Cruise for this incredible stunt.
The second sequence follows the first one, although it’s unclear exactly how much time passes. In the scene, one of their targets escapes on foot, and Cruise takes off after him. While viewers have certainly seen Cruise run before, it’s unprecedented to get to watch him run full-speed at the camera for an extended take – and doing so while being five stories tall. (It makes you winded just to watch it.) Cruise races after his adversary, but behind both of them, a sandstorm quickly approaches, and eventually engulfs them, making it much more difficult for Ethan. Because he put a tracer on his foe, however, Ethan’s able to use his phone to track him, but the other man gets into a car, trying to run him over as he escapes. The ever-tenacious Ethan grabs onto the car and tries to stop the driver, but eventually falls off as wind and sand whip around them violently – so much so that it’s almost impossible to see anything.
Ethan jumps in a nearby car and races after him, and the two of them end up on a freeway. Unlike the skillful, clean-cut chase sequences of other films, Ethan doesn’t hesitate to knock into other vehicles on the road in order to catch up with his adversary, and he eventually drives the wrong way on the opposite side of the freeway in order to meet up with him – head-on. He leaps from the car at the last second and the cars smash together, sending one car flying at Ethan, who narrowly dodges it. But even without two tons of metal on top of him Ethan is injured and tired, and his enemy is able to escape on the back of a nearby truck, just as the sandstorm begins to recede.
While all of the footage looks incredibly promising – at least as visceral and exciting as the set pieces in its predecessors – the most important thing that the screening revealed was how effectively Bird is using the IMAX format to enhance the intensity and entertainment value of the film. When IMAX first became viable as a film format, filmmakers used it to capture majestic locations and amplify the energy of being in real situations. Since it became another tool for fiction filmmakers to use to enhance the cinematic experience for traditional filmgoers, however, few have used it as more than just (or “just) an enormous canvas upon which they can capture enormous spectacle. Bay’s use of it in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for example, is amazing, but it merely captures a larger framing of the battle that is happening. And even in The Dark Knight, which set a precedent for the use of IMAX in non-Imax films, Nolan primarily used it to document larger shots in sequences like the explosion of the hospital.
But while these sequences are both memorable and more exciting because of the filmmakers’ use of IMAX, Bird seems to be using it with a keener sense of size and depth, exemplified by the first shot of Cruise on the ledge. The audience literally cannot escape looking down more than a thousand feet at the ground below, and they are engulfed by images of Cruise struggling to climb a real building, for real, which make you feel like you’re right there with him. And in the sandstorm chase, the sand is almost oppressive to viewers, even as it gives Bird more real estate in which to stage the action. Consequently – and I don’t know how much if any of the sand is real or CGI - the sandstorm can literally overshadow all of the action in the scene, even as the sequence as a whole remains clear and understandable; there’s a smothering sort of ubiquitousness that again, the audience cannot get away from, and it augments the emotional stakes of the scene.
As with any footage preview, it remains to be seen how effectively these scenes will be integrated into an overall narrative. But in terms of the film’s use of IMAX, Bird’s work seems like it might be the standard-bearer, or at least high-water mark, for integrating the format into more fiction films. Not to mention Cruise’s willingness to subject himself to literally life-or-death stakes for the sake of an action scene, which if they don’t set a new standard, they definitely should.