FIRSTLY, sorry for being away for so long. I’ve been busy moving city & also I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about film over on mrrumsey.com.
Secondly, in case no-one’s noticed, Spectre, the 24th – or fourth, in-continuity – Bond film, comes out in just over a month, & it’s incredibly exciting. Since rebooting the franchise with 2006’s Casino Royale, the producers have crafted an intricate & continuity-heavy universe that manages to be just credible enough to work without going full Man of Steel & sucking all the vitality from its source material.
This is in stark contrast to Bond‘s rival, Mission: Impossible. Their latest, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, released earlier this year, delivers all the spy action thrills (& leans heavily on the rebooted Bonds for inspiration; see “Recycled Script” here) in a big, preposterous package. Among its other borrowings, it takes from the new Bonds a slight inclination towards the political thriller, a sense that, rather than being a series of cool standalones like the television programme on which it is based, the film series now takes place in a real world, an organic world in which actions have consequences & overweight CIA men get stuffy at you when, despite saving the world, you can’t prevent a deactivated missile clipping a building slightly. Since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was probably the coolest action film ever made, I’m sure fans were very happy to see it granted a continuing influence on the plot of this new, slightly more action-oriented movie. But in copping a move from Bond once again, the M:I series sink further into their own nonsensicality.
The five movies in the series each have a different director &, consequently, a totally different feel: Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was a techno-thriller not too far removed from the TV version; John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II was an action film showcasing its director’s obsessions (slow-motion wirework, flocks of doves, dual handguns with infinite ammo, villains as near-identical Shadow Archetypes); JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III benefitted from his fannish penchant for ditching a series’ silliness while retaining its cool; the best, Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol won much praise for its visual “pop” & fast-paced humour, both elements found in the director’s previous animated work. Rogue Nation, by The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, is the first without an agenda of its own. Rather, it tries to be a continuation of Ghost Protocol while also rehabilitating past entries in the series. But continuity isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big issue here. The series, like the Alien films (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & apparently Neill Blomkamp), has benefitted rather than suffered from its tendency to be remodelled by auteurs. If you can ignore your hang-ups, you’re better off seeing each film as a new artist’s interpretation of the material, rather than a continuation of what’s gone before. It’s certainly easier than believing the bombastic M:I II is something that actually happened in the past of the characters in the later films. They probably just try not to talk about it too much.
And, of course, so few film series bother going all the way with continuity. The way science-fiction miracle tech habitually shows up in superspy movies, by your third or so installment you’d be living in an alternate timeline. Take the facemasks of Mission: Impossible; the first scene of the first film screws everything with the first time one of the highly realistic gadgets is removed. While being worn, their wearers are indistinguishable from the real deal (the third film gets hilarious, with fit Tom Cruise becoming portly Philip Seymour Hoffman simply by wearing a mask). Fine, that makes no sense but it’s part of the series’ trademark superscience. The silliness comes in during later films. In every scene – & each movie has at least one – in which a character is exposed as an impersonator, someone will grab the lower left corner of their face & pull, easily removing the mask to reveal Tom Cruise or someone else underneath it. Since the masks are so easily removeable once the characters are aware of them in-universe, why isn’t giving someone’s cheeks a good old pinching part of every standard security procedure in the world? Partly it’s to make the plots work, partly it’s to avoid looking silly, & partly it’s the fact that sequels, in general, tend not to be set in the world prior movies have established; rather, they’re generally about those established fictional characters living in our world, not their own. Example: going by GoldenEye, the Cold War apparently ended the same way in Bond’s world as our Cold War did. But in an alternate universe in which the UK is the most hypercompetent power in the world, the Soviet Union should have been militarily & economically outclassed much, much ealier.
Bond gets even sillier than M:I does with facemasks, too: in You Only Live Twice, Bond undergoes a surgical procedure to appear (unconvincingly) Japanese; in Die Another Day, a Korean villain goes through a more painful reverse version of that treatment, having his DNA replaced (???) in order to impersonate a Caucasian businessman; in Thunderball, a SPECTRE-affiliated villain has apparently spent two years’ worth of plastic surgery & acting lessons in order to become the double of a UN pilot; in Diamonds Are Forever, Ernst Stavro Blofeld undergoes plastic surgery in order to hide out in disguise as reclusive millionaire Willard White (his earlier change from Donald Pleasence into the equally bald but much taller Telly Savalas goes unremarked on). What idiots all those people were! From Russia with Love, an earlier film, opens with “James Bond” dying. Except…it’s a training exercise for villain Red Grant, & the deceased was wearing a facemask! If 100% convincing facemasks exist in this universe – & are commonplace enough to be thrown away on a training exercise in which, verisimilitude aside, they really don’t add much – why aren’t they put to use on all those later occasions? The only reason is that the old Bonds really weren’t a series, just a series of impressions, with certain archetypical features (disfigured villains, shark pits, ski sequences, fake-out deaths for Bond) repeated in slightly different order with little continuity. Mission: Impossible was even worse for this, repeating not only its own tropes (infiltration via aerial descent in four of its entries; the IMF discredited in four of its entries; the aforementioned facemask reveal in all five of them) but also square-pegging Bond tropes such as the constantly shifting love interests – Bond’s a bastard who we expect to continually ditch women, but Ethan is a thoroughly decent sort it’s hard to imagine abandoning so many loves of his life so abruptly*.
But continuity isn’t a bad thing. You can get too much of it, certainly – see the mess Doctor Who periodically becomes before a nice soft-reboot (1970, 2005, 2010) – but if you can manage to stay on top of it, your fun little movies become all the more meaningful & worth returning to. Mind you, it took Bond a complete reboot before the producers could keep their continuity straight, & even now it continually threatens to spin out of control. When it was never there in the first place, it might not be best to force it.
*Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher’s thoroughly decent Batman has the same problem, with a new love interest in each; as does, funnily enough, thoroughly decent Daniel-San in his three Karate Kid movies. His lowest moment is convincing the lovely Kumiko to leave her tiny Okinawa fishing village for America, then dropping her, broke & alone in a strange country before the third film begins.