I didn’t want to watch Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol until I was in Dubai. It seemed appropriate, given how much ballyhoo (is that a real word? in 2012?) was made about the fact that Tom Cruise & crew had managed to break through the obdurate Virtuality Curtain that has kept Dubai out of international cinema’s prurient gaze since … well, sort of since forever. Bits of the city-state appeared fleetingly as a recognisable but fictionally named ‘other’ emirate in Syriana.
But, you’d have thought this confection of neo-liberal fantasy – what Rem Koolhaas once called ‘a film-set with real problems’ – would have been hounded by the silver-screen from the get-go, laden as it is with ‘iconic’ backdrops, many of which would have started out on the same kind of 3D visualisation software that goes into making something like Ghost Protocol. So, why the coy injunction all this time? And why alleviate that prohibition now?
I first heard about the Mission Impossible+Dubai equation from a consultant for the Dubai Media Authority in 2010. She told me, both frankly and in hushed confidence, that most film-scripts submitted to the government for permission had always cast Dubai in a stereotypical negative darkness: dodgy financial dealings and naturally as a nexus of Jihadist terrorism. Each of these scripts had simply been batted away by the DMA – as had Sex & the City 2, for different, un-coy reasons (or they can smell a stinking dud even before it’s been filmed).
Not until Dubai had hemorrhaged from sublimely silly levels of debt, exposed in the sandstorm of 2009’s financial crisis, did it decide to embark upon – awful phrase coming up – a ‘rebranding exercise’. Suddenly it needed the supplement of fiction, now that the fiction of its so called reality had financially imploded, and begun to sink, like The World is sinking back into the sea.
That would be the second reason no major feature films – or indeed fiction of any kind – have been staged here, till now (FYI, the next James Bond novel is to be set, at least partly, in Dubai). From 2001 to 2008, the place was a torrid, twisted excess of fiction you could Google Map. A Utopia sans social teleological project. Endless epic billboards and smooth video-promotions promising an unbridled future – but without, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, a community to come.
Entertainment fiction had no work to do here.
It was unemployable.
When Tom Cruise – aka Agent Ethan Hunt – tells his colleagues that they’re, ‘going to Dubai’ in the next scene, the cinema audience at Dubai Mall cooed with self-recognition, and a smidgen of cringe. We’d all known about the Burj Khalifa as acrobatic prop (which I wrote about in conjunction with the skyscraper’s first recorded suicide here, which Sophia Al Maria portraits piquantly here, and footage of which exists mesmerically here) – but how smoothly would the unlikely setting fit within the overall arc of the film? (A similar moment occurs in Contagion: the deadly, unknown infection targets Hong Kong, Chicago, Macao, Atlanta, London – and Abu Dhabi. Oh, that’s right. They – Imagenation Abu Dhabi – co-produced the film. Sorry!)
Back to Ghost Protocol. What soaring symbol do you greet the audience with, to lull them into a sense of specific place?
Camels. Yes. That’s the preferred transition device from Budapest to the Burj. For some mysterious reason, Cruise and crew’s drive from Dubai airport to Sheikh Zayed Road involves careering past luscious, dappled, desert dunes – and thousands of free range camels. Some have even established home in the middle of the dirt-track. Watch out Tom! Those aren’t speed bumps! More like speed humps! (Camel jokes are always lame.)
Sadly, real reality contests this dromedarian account: the trek from airport to downtown Dubai actually passes hoards of mirrored towers, finished and under construction, six lane highways, sinewy underpasses, a Pyramidal Raffles hotel, the immense Grand Hyatt, and a lot of advertising. Notice: no camels.
The New Orientalist fantasy continues when they arrive at the Burj, and the only extras in the background are Emiratis. No indication that in fact, Emiratis comprise only approximately 11% of the entire population, which is made of some 200 nationalities. Typically, lobbies are one of the spaces par excellence where you feel this decentred complexion.
When Tom runs – and as we know, he is obliged, contractually, to run very fast at least once in each of his films – out of the Burj, into a Biblically sized sandstorm, instead of slamming his face on the side of Dubai Mall or get drenched in the world’s biggest dancing fountain display, Tom’s, like, lost in the smog of a ‘traditional’ souk – not dissimilar to the quaint olde market the harpies, I mean girls, in Sex & The City 2 go to to have an ‘authentic ‘Arabian outing. Bargains! Old Men with beards! Handicrafts!
Mother-fuckin’ jump cut. Galore.
Of course, block-buster films are, by habit, ontologically loose with the limits of reality (most of the Los Angeles we’ve ever seen on-screen is actually Vancouver in drag) – but – it’s nevertheless interesting that the cinematic shorthand preferred here, in Ghost Protocol, is a kind of retro-fictional ghost of the post-crash Dubai its Emir has striven for it to be perceived against. Camels, dunes, locals, and a lone, fiendishly sophisticated skyscraper that has to be thwarted to save the world. Remember – all this had to have been sanctioned by the authorities for it to have happened there at all.
When Sheikh Mohammed – Ruler of Dubai – published his book of poems in 2009, this was the front cover:
Note: no camels – but also no Burj Dubai (as it was known then), no serrated skyline denoting supermodernity, no hulking machinery of industrial transmogrification and heaving human toil. The ghosts of the future and the ghosts of the past that never happened combine – in cinema’s present – as a living fantasy that serves the best purposes for ideology. I mean, er, fiction.