David Cronenberg remarked that title sequences in movies were like “vestibules,” transitional spaces between the outside world and the world of the movie, where you take off your jacket, get comfy, and adjust to this new place before you go fully go in. (He said this at the beginning of the commentary for A History of Violence, noting that it’s one of his only title sequences that takes place over action.) The Mission: Impossible series has proven to be one of the most durable pieces of popular entertainment for over 20 years now, and those iconic title sequences are an important part of it, doing the job Cronenberg sez they should do. They have a common feel to them and also do a good job (in the way that, say, the Star Wars title crawls don’t) of reflecting the artistic personality of the directors and the upcoming film, for better and for worse. They all say “Welcome to Mission: Impossible, get ready for a film by ________!”
Start with the source, the titles from the TV series, and start that with, natch, Lalo Schifrin’s music, the greatest theme ever composed for television and quite possibly for movies as well. You know I’m right about this because you’re already singing it to yourself, aren’t you? (Hawaii Five-O is the only other serious contender.) Unmistakably Latin but also abstracted, like the work of Bartók or Górecki, stripped down to almost nothing but percussive drive, there’s nothing to beat it for that feeling of going from zero to 60 in about three seconds. It doesn’t promise action, it is action, and it’s necessary for the visuals of the titles to follow suit.
The series titles set the template that the movies would follow to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the director: the lighting of the match, the fuse burning over the images, the selection of scenes from the upcoming episode (seeing these out of context was always fun ‘cuz you got the bonus shock-o’-recognition when you saw them again in context), the cast shots and credits, the IMPOSSIBLE stamped over MISSION: to finish it. (Another neat touch: the words are in different fonts.) These titles aren’t just information, they’re a promise of what’s to come, foreshadowing excitement the same way the Law and Order titles assure regularity.
I can’t oversell the thrill, back in 1996, of the moment when Brian dePalma shifts from the elegant opening sequence, set up like a climax of an episode of the TV show with a reveal of information and stripping away of the masks and sets, into the swoooooooosh of the burning match and dun dun dundun! What follows is pure dePalma: a deep knowledge of both film history and technique compressed into less than one minute. There’s nothing you could call special effects here, only cinematic ones: the flip to negative, the video shots, the jump zooms, the barrage of edits. (My favorite moment shows all the IMF agents’ IDs flipping by.) It’s as musical as a Brakhage short and also a classic work of dePalmatic misdirection: even though Tom Cruise gets the only acting credit in here, the rest of the cast gets equal importance in the images, notwithstanding that most of them will be killed off in the next fifteen minutes. It’s still my favorite of the credit sequences, and almost my favorite of the movies.
John Woo takes ten minutes to get to these titles in 2, spending his time on a great, tense action sequence sandwiched between two dull passages, one with some pontificating about “something that every hero requires, a villain” and another that spends its time doing what most of the rest of the movie will do, hanging around saying “my that Tom Cruise is a fine-looking fella.” Most of the titles happen over the doughy bread of that that last part, with this sequence just finishing it off with some strange, medieval imagery of the rivals Chimera and Bellerophon (it’s not worth explaining this) and skipping all the elements from the series that dePalma used. (Even the title is treated as a single phrase.) The most notable aspect of this is the utterly de-funked performance of the theme by Limp Bizkit, overproduced and underimagined, unignorable and at the same time utterly generic, one of the definitive examples of butt-rock circa 2000. The whole thing promises an overblown, poorly paced work of cliché substituting for intensity, and Woo, sadly, delivers.
J. J. Abrams can be justly criticized for many things, but “hanging around and stalling the action” is not one of them. After the opening scene, still the best thing I’ve seen in the entire series (“Ten.” “NO!–“), Abrams dives through the same kind of credit sequence that he used in Alias and Lost, something almost handmade and as short as he can get away with; there’s nothing here except the first line of actors, the burning fuse, and Michael Giacchino’s rendition of the score–and even that’s stripped down to mostly percussion and the kind of Xenakian orchestral shrieks he used in Lost. Abrams has no statement to make; all he wants to do is keep the momentum of that opening scene going so he can charge right into the next scene, and he’ll keep doing this all the way to the end.
One of the things Brad Bird takes from animation is a healthy disrespect for physics. You see that in several of Ghost Protocol’s setpieces, which use the vertical axis in ways that other directors rarely do: the Burj Khalifa scene is the most famous, but there’s also Josh Holloway jumping off the building, Jeremy Renner and the airshaft, and the final boss battle in the parking garage, and the largely and openly CGI’d titles here. Bird returns to the idea of the TV series titles, with excerpts from the movie all through it, but makes the fuse and the POV three-dimensional and guides us through them with the fluidity of someone who thinks in renderings as much as dePalma thinks in edits and zooms. He doesn’t have or want the speed of dePalma; at nearly two minutes, this is the most expansive version of the credits, and Giacchino slows down the score accordingly, quietly giving it little riffs and pauses without ever losing that all-important momentum.
Despite a higher level of budget and spectacle, Christopher McQuarrie brings a back-to-basics style to Rogue Nation. Some commenter made the most excellent observation that the most talked-about and biggest stunt, Cruise hanging from an airplane in takeoff why not, is the very first thing we see in the film. After that, McQuarrie’s a lot more interested in classic questions of loyalty and betrayal than stunts (that opening scene barely plays into anything afterwards); the final capture of the bad guy plays like a scene in the original TV series (for all I know, it was). So it’s not surprising that this title sequence feels the most like the first movie’s, right down to the pace of editing, the use of jump zooms (gotta love that one on Simon Pegg, who brought some real weight and fear this time out), and the typography; there’s also a really effective motif here that almost all the images of characters show them looking. McQuarrie has a real talent for great opening scenes (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher), and he downshifts from the speed of this into what feels quieter and more perfunctory for the rest of the titles–and then that gets startlingly reversed, the work of someone who carries on the legacy of dePalma and Hitchcock.
McQuarrie is the only director to take on a second Mission; the titles for Fallout have a sense of legacy to them, coming out of a scene like the first film, and playing out like a mix of the last two. He paces this one a little bit slower than Rogue Nation, using only pieces of action (rather than a mix of action and single images) and letting the credits stay credit-sized. The fuse has been replaced by a CGI effect of burning on the scenes, as if the film stock was on fire–a neat and logical effect. Composer Lorne Balfe expands on the theme as much as Giacchino did in Ghost Protocol, but he goes for a more orchestral, bombastic style, especially towards the end. It’s good enough, but almost conventional, lacking the energy of 1 and Rogue Nation and the inventiveness of Ghost Protocol; it suggests a more grandiose movie coming up, not necessarily a good one.