May 12, 2006

No myth: “M-I-3″ failed to build its own history

By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Was it the
couch-jumping? The marketing? Some flaw in the movie itself?
Ever since Paramount Pictures' "Mission: Impossible III" opened
Friday to what most observers judged a disappointing three-day
domestic gross of $47.7 million, the hunt has been on to
explain the shortfall.

One theory holds that as the third film in a series,
"M:I-3" is simply experiencing franchise burnout. But the
reality, as far as that notion goes, might be more complicated.
Thanks to television and the Internet, the way core fans engage
with their favorite entertainment is changing in a way that
might have simply left "M:I-3" behind the curve.

Blame it on "The X-Files." That ground-breaking TV series
-- with its ever-more convoluted story lines about alien
invaders and government cover-ups -- popularized the notion of
creating a "mythology," a growing catalog of hints, clues and
underlying relationships, that enriches a tale. It also feeds
the enthusiasm of its core fan base, flattered to be asked to
tease out the mysteries, often on Internet chat boards, even if
the mysteries are rarely ever satisfactorily explained.

While the phenomenon has thrived on TV -- ABC's "Lost" is
the reigning example -- it also has shown up in the movies.
George Lucas' "Star Wars" is, in many ways, the grand-daddy of
the ever-expanding mythology. In between films, Lucas kept his
franchise alive by developing it in books, games and cartoon
series, so that when the series' second trilogy was released,
fans were panting with anticipation. This month, 20th Century
Fox's "X-Men: The Last Stand" will attempt to build on the
success of the first two "X-Men" movies by adding new
characters and further exploring the relationships between the
returning mutants.

From the start though, the "Mission" series rejected
mythology. The first movie killed off the character of Jim
Phelps, the one link to the 1960s TV series. On the big screen,
the franchise chose to bet primarily on its star Tom Cruise,
surrounded by spectacular explosions.

Part of the appeal of the old TV series was that it
established a team of covert operatives -- Martin Landau's
master of disguise, Barbara Bain's femme fatale, Greg Morris'
tech expert and Peter Lupus' strong man. Then each week, it
combined their expertise in different combinations in jigsaw
puzzle plots. On the big screen, though, each of the films
essentially has erased all memory of its predecessor -- only
Ving Rhames has teamed with Cruise in all three movies. In
effect, each of the movies has been a stand-alone

Certainly, stand-alone movies without an evolving mythology
can still turn into blockbusters. The James Bond series is the
prime example, even if in recent years, it has coasted on
moviegoers' nostalgia as Bond re-enacts familiar rituals. But
stand-alones, lacking a dedicated fan base eager for new
details, can face bigger hurdles.

"M:I-3" director J.J. Abrams compensates for the series'
lack of its own mythology by borrowing elements of his TV
series, most especially "Alias," where emotional bonds are
constantly tested in the midst of flashy spy capers and
table-turning third-act betrayals are to be expected. There are
in-references to delight his fans: A cameo appearance by actor
Greg Grunberg, who has appeared in all of Abrams' series; a
star turn by Keri Russell, star of Abrams' "Felicity;" passing
references to Oceanic Airlines and the Hanso Foundation, which
figure in "Lost."

Some critics have knocked Abrams' dependence on the "Alias"
tropes. But -- though there is no way to prove it -- because
"M:I-3" lacks a mythology of its own, without its shout-outs to
"Alias" fans, "M:I-3" might have encountered even more
resistance than it did.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter