Early on in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth movie in the successful series of films starring Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, our intrepid hero faces a dilemma. He could retrieve the plutonium cores that he and his team have been sent to intercept to make sure that they don’t fall into the hands of The Apostles, a terrorist organization formed from the remnants of The Syndicate, or he could save one of his friends and team members.
Hunt isn’t Superman, but as viewers we are assured that he will accept his impossible mission. And we can take comfort in the fact that he will complete it.Much of the team from the last movie in the series, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is back, including computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), wise-cracking tech wiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), and anarchist-villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Christopher McQuarrie, who has either written or directed—or both—several projects with Cruise (including Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow, The Mummy, and Rogue Nation) reprises his directorial role. There are also some new characters injected into the series, notably CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, best known for his role as Superman in the DC Extended Universe).
Fans of the series won’t be disappointed. All of the elements of the story that we have come to expect and enjoy are present: Tom Cruise running, Tom Cruise jumping out of buildings, Tom Cruise riding a motorcycle, Tom Cruise suspended from a wire or rope. The masks. Some (nearly) impossible mission that sends the team across the globe chasing a MacGuffin in order to save the world.
When confronted with his dilemma, Hunt chooses to save his friend, which leads to a series of events that brings the world to the brink of disaster. Near the end of the film, as the timers connected to the nuclear bombs count down…
But I’m not here to talk about that.
It’s not the details of this story that concern me. What interests me is our attraction to movies like this.
Why do we—and, yes, I absolutely include myself in that group—enjoy the Mission: Impossible, James Bond, and Jason Bourne films? Sure, they’re incredibly entertaining. But I think that their popularity also points to a deeper human desire. We long not just for a good story, but also for a good ending.
We long for the assurance and consolation that a good ending brings.
J. R. R. Tolkien and Unexpected Endings
On March 8, 1939, J. R. R. Tolkien—who by that point had already published The Hobbit and had begun work on what would become The Lord of the Rings—gave the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In that lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” he spoke about what makes a good story. And Tolkien, a master storyteller, knew what he was talking about.
For Tolkien, fairy stories weren’t just for children, nor were they stories that are full of lies. They are, instead, stories that draw upon what he called the world of Faërie, by which he meant the fullness of the human imagination that is employed to create a “true” world that offers escape for prisoners and consolation for the afflicted. Though sometimes inhabited by fantastic beasts and mythical creatures, the stories are all the more real and true because they appeal to those deep-seated human desires.
According to Tolkien, it is the ending of the fairy story that is its most important part. Unable to find a word to express exactly what he meant, Tolkien, whose day job was a philologist as the Chair of Anglo-Saxon Literature at the University of Oxford, created one: “eucatastrophe.” The term combines the prefix “eu-,” which means “good” (e.g., “eulogy”, “euphoria,” or “Eucharist”) and the root “strophe,” from the Greek for “turn.” So, a eucatastrophe is, literally, a “good turn” of events. It is that moment when everything is lost, when the hero is defeated, but then—unexpectedly, undeservedly, unbelievably—everything is set right. The day is saved. In Tolkien’s words, it is “a sudden and miraculous grace.”
Importantly, the notion of eucatastrophe does not deny the possibility of a “dyscatastrophe,” an actual catastrophe (literally, a turn “down” or “against”). In order for “the joy of deliverance” to be genuine, Tolkien argued, the turn that takes place at the end of the story must be preceded by disaster and the possibility of actual loss, though it never succumbs to absolute defeat. When that unexpected turn comes, then, it gives us “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”
Tolkien believed that using our imaginations in this way—thereby becoming, in his words, “sub-creators”—was part of what it means for us to use our God-given gifts faithfully: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Moreover, in his estimation, the Christian story offered a kind of fairy story. Not because it isn’t true; indeed, just the opposite. In the story of the life, death, and—here’s the completely unexpected turn—the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel offers “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.”
The Mission: Impossible films aren’t normally considered fantasy or fairy stories by our contemporary categories, but they certainly embody some of the primary elements that Tolkien mentions as necessary parts of a good story: The possibility for a real catastrophe. An unexpected turn that brings relief and comfort. A catch of the breath. The day is saved.
The Drama of the Gospel
This kind of “good turn” that brings assurance to the viewer makes the Mission: Impossible films and those like it inherently dramatic, regardless of the category under which you may find them on Netflix.
Anglo-Catholic author, playwright, and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers was probably best known for her detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey or her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But she also wrote several works in theology. Perhaps the greatest service that she gave to the church was highlighting the dramatic nature of its dogma—the official teachings of the church; its sanctioned story, if you like—which she knew some considered to be dull.
In one essay, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” she points to the “terrifying drama” of the gospel in which God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and then died… but didn’t remain dead: “If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?” She adds: “Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it Revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all.” Similarly, in “The Dogma Is the Drama,” she explains that it is the gospel that makes a truly dramatic claim: “not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer concurs. He argues in The Drama of Doctrine that although the gospel is made up of “a series of vividly striking events” and is itself “intrinsically dramatic,” too often, the dynamic nature of the Christian faith is overlooked. With that in mind, he calls for theology to serve as a form of “dramaturgy.” Like a dramaturge in a theater, whose task it is to help the director interpret the script for both the actors and the audience, theology can help the directors (pastors) to interpret the script (Scripture) of this dramatic play for the company (the church).
What both Sayers and Vanhoozer point to, in their very different ways, is that the gospel message is far from stale and irrelevant. Instead, it presents the cosmic drama of the incarnation of the Son of God, the entrance of the Christ into the world, his completely unexpected deliverance from death, and our completely undeserved participation in new, everlasting life. To borrow the title of another film, it is The Greatest Story Ever Told.
The Mission: Impossible films appeal to us, I think, not just because of the incredible stunts and action sequences—although those are certainly entertaining—but also because they offer a kind of terrifying drama that ends in assurance and consolation. As we watch Ethan Hunt jump between buildings or fight his enemy on the edge of a cliff, we can take comfort in the knowledge that whatever circumstances he finds himself in—which often entail great pain and suffering (indeed, Cruise was injured during filming, which delayed production for several weeks)—at the end of the day, he will save the world. Hunt isn’t Superman, but as viewers we are assured that he will accept his impossible mission. And we can take comfort in the fact that he will complete it.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
… they cut the wires. And the world is saved.