Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.
The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.
In a way, it also remains the most interesting.
ANNA ESPINOSA: I heard about your fiancé. Very sad. I thought perhaps it was a security execution sanctioned by your employer. Maybe you said something in your sleep you shouldn’t have. But then why would you be here in service for the men that killed your true love?
If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss.
The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.
It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. ‘Truth Be Told’ is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.
Think back to 2001. Had anyone heard of Abrams at that point? He was established – a proven Hollywood screenwriter with credits such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry, not to mention four seasons of teen drama Felicity as a show runner. Those movies were nonetheless famous for their stars and directors, not the glasses-wearing megamind of Abrams bashing away at the words, and Felicity was never particularly that big of a hit – I’m not sure it ever even aired in my native UK, and if it did it went largely unnoticed. Alias was the series which put Abrams, and most of his writing staff, on the map. The first season of his spy drama races out the gate with fast-paced, stylish storytelling, which crucially never forgets to place character at the heart of every beat, every scene and every plot-twist. ‘Truth Be Told’ is B-movie, pulp action with significant heart and soul.
Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television. The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.
One suspects in the future, when people talk about The Cloverfield Paradox, they may wonder if the title was intentionally ironic. The paradox of Julius Onah’s picture doesn’t lie in the alternate realities or particle accelerators in space that its plot propagates, rather in quite how unsuccessfully a promising spec script was ported into the burgeoning Cloverfield universe, hashed up, delayed, re-written, re-shot, and then thrown onto Netflix after the Super Bowl with, literally, around two hours notice. That story is undoubtedly more remarkable than anything in the film itself.
Let’s backtrack. In early 2008, JJ Abrams’ production house Bad Robot dropped, equally out of nowhere, the original Cloverfield. Directed by friend and collaborator Matt Reeves, who has since gone on to make quite the name for himself with the Dawn and War For the Planet of the Apes (and potentially soon The Batman), Cloverfield took everyone by surprise. Abrams, fresh off huge TV success with Lost and breaking into cinema with Mission Impossible III, managed to fuse together the en vogue found footage sub-genre with a modern day, Hollywood take on Toho, reimagining a Godzilla-esque monster ramping through New York for a post-911, burgeoning social media American audience. Punchy, frothy and deft, Cloverfield just *worked*.
Understandably, it also left people wanting more. Abrams & Reeves left just enough clues as to a wider universe to make fans salivate; a blink and you’ll miss it (literally) suggestion the monster came from outer space, for one thing. The point of that story didn’t involve answers—it was about average Joe characters thrown into a scenario equivalent to a terrorist attack, essentially—but the idea answers may point to a broader mythology left many hoping Abrams and his collaborators would follow it up. Though it took almost a decade, in 2016, again almost out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane arrived in cinemas with a more recognisable cast (including a great John Goodman performance) and a narrative which made one thing clear: the Cloverfield universe was playing by different rules.