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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

'Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning' Is the Perfect AI Panic Movie

American action movie villains have always acted as a sort of paranoia litmus test, capturing a snapshot of the particular anxieties plaguing the country and its citizens at any given time. During the Cold War, movies like From Russia with Love, Rocky IV, and Red Dawn nodded at the public’s fear of wily Soviets, ostensibly hell-bent on ruining the capitalist way of life. In the 1990s and ’00s, with the Red Menace long forgotten, movies leaned heavily on the awful “bad Arab” trope, pulling their villains from the Middle East. Other recent smash-’em-ups have made bad guys out of rogue spies, shadowy cyber terrorists, and self-interested arms dealers, all common players in the global news landscape.

But for Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, out this week, writers Erik Jendresen and Christopher McQuarrie (who also directed the movie) made their big bad—known as The Entity—out of a slightly more amorphous fear: that of an all-powerful, all-seeing, sentient AI. It has access to anything with an online network and can use those evil techno powers to manipulate everything from global military superpowers to a grandma with a gun. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once, and although the movie uses Esai Morales’ Gabriel as The Entity’s henchman, he’s a mere mortal—albeit one with access to all the information and decision-making logic the world’s strongest supercomputer has to offer.

While the “man vs. machine” trope is nothing new, the idea of a sentient AI coming to take over humanity feels especially prescient and pressing in 2023, when ChatGPT is writing term papers and companies are tasking AI-imbued bots with everything from listicles to tech support. The looming threat of AI-generated content is a big sticking point for the striking members of the Writers Guild of America too, with many wanting to ensure that any new contract they sign includes provisions for how—or whether—studios can use the technology to create scripts.

Of course, Dead Reckoning was written years ago. Part One was originally scheduled for release in the summer of 2021, before Covid-19 threw a wrench in the movie’s production calendar. McQuarrie and company simply stumbled into great timing with the movie’s current release date, which comes about six months into America’s newfound obsession with generative AI’s perks and perils and just weeks after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a major congressional push toward AI regulation. Fears of AI’s inevitable takeover are hot right now, even if (or because) the vast majority of Americans don’t know the first thing about how it could actually happen.

Perhaps that’s why The Entity works as a villain, even if the way the movie personifies it with swooshing graphics and eye-like optics is a little hokey. Most moviegoers have only had brief dalliances with AI, perhaps through a few minutes spent probing ChatGPT or some backyard BBQ conversation about how Bing’s chatbot went rogue and encouraged a New York Times reporter to leave his wife. There are gaps and technological leaps in how The Entity operates—and a convenient-ish kill switch in a sunken submarine buried under Arctic ice—but none of that really matters if you’re just a schmo looking for something new and mysterious to fear.

What’s more, AI is a fairly innocuous foe. In an era when action movies can’t just craft a villain from some othered nationality, ethnic group, or fringe political organization, a sentient and speciously evil computer will likely only offend the most adamant of AI defenders, a significant portion of whom already concede that the technology could cause humanity’s extinction. Dead Reckoning—Part One has to become a global box office smash to make its $290 million budget back, and having a faceless foe that basically the whole world can spit at is certainly a step in the right direction.

Maybe Mission: Impossible’s Entity is just the harbinger of the future for action movie baddies. Both Heart of Stone and The Creator—which drop in August and September, respectively—feature AI foes hell-bent on global destruction. Humanity will no doubt prevail and endure in both those and Dead Reckoning—at their core, action movies are feel-good romps, after all—but in the meantime, millions of moviegoers can come together, bonded by their fear of what’s to come.

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