‘Mission Impossible’ gadgets actually quite possible
By Jeff Stein,
Ever since it launched as a TV series in 1966, the allure of “Mission Impossible” has been its entertaining combustion of cunning and pyrotechnics.
With the explosion of “MI” onto the big screen as a Tom Cruise star vehicle, the technical sleights-of-hand that are the franchise’s trademark have become all the more spectacular. Sure, it’s easy to blow up things, which the latest installment, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” does at a fast and furious pace.
But what about some of its other technical feats? In an age when military personnel sitting in a trailer outside Las Vegas can pilot a drone to rain death-by-joystick on terrorists in Pakistan, what’s really impossible?
Not much, say some veteran counterterror operators. Some of the inspiration for the Special Operations Command’s bag of tricks comes from — Hollywood.
“We just dream up our own stuff and see how it works,” says Gregg Smrz, stunt coordinator on the new “MI,” who’s had a hand in about two dozen other action films since 1982.
Peter Blaber, a former Delta Force commander who was a military adviser on 18 episodes of “The Unit,” a “Mission Impossible”-like series on CBS, says the Pentagon’s Special Forces Command draws inspiration from Hollywood, among other sources.
“Hollywood actually does a real service to our national security by applying our most potent weapon — imagination — to the many asymmetrical threats we are and will continue to face,” Blaber said by e-mail.
“My old unit achieved many technological breakthroughs, but they occurred because we sent our experts out to meet and work with civilian inventors and manufacturers who were willing to customize off-the-shelf technology for operational purposes.”
One of the “MI” team’s technological stunts, hacking into a prison’s computer-controlled cell locks and video cameras, is, of course, old hat, as anyone who’s had the password to their online bank account stolen can attest. Cyber war is all the rage these days at the Pentagon, whose own computers were broken into years ago by the Chinese.
The same goes for a robotic rover the “MI” team deploys. Any police department worthy of the name seems to have one, to examine suspected bombs from a safe distance. The title of a new book by retired Air Force scientist Simon Ramo, father of the intercontinental ballistic missile, gets right to the point: “Let Robots Do the Dying.”
But what about some of the more exotic stuff, such as the electromagnetic gloves Tom Cruise wears to climb up the windows of the world’s tallest skyscraper, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates?
“I don’t know where they got that from,” says Smrz, who added that he and the “MI” producers tried different versions until settling on a model that would make sense to audiences.
But Blaber, author of “The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander,” says “the magnetic gloves are a reality.
“I don’t know the composition of the Dubai skyscraper,” he added, “but the gloves are pretty effective when used on steel buildings, even allowing you to climb upside down.”
Alain Robert, a building climber known as “the French Spider-Man,” Blaber said, “teaches lots of these techniques.”
Then there’s a scene where one of the “MI” team is suspended in midair by some electromagnetic force. Of course, Smrz says, it’s pretty much all in the imagination.
Or is it?
“It definitely hasn’t been operationalized, but levitation technology is advancing and is being used for lots of apps,” Blaber said.
Indeed, “a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University has discovered a way to make objects float in mid-air using a process called quantum levitation, and they think the technology could even lead to floating alternatives to traditional gas-powered vehicles,” the Inhabitat Web site reported in October.
Current counterterrorism computer technology, meanwhile, seems to have caught up to, and maybe even surpassed, the imaginations of filmmakers.
According to a recent report in Businessweek, a Silicon Valley start-up called Palentir has developed software that allows police and intelligence agencies to merge their electronic records — from traffic tickets to ATM cash withdrawals, airline tickets, car rentals and video-surveillance databanks using face-recognition technology — to track suspects around the globe.
“The company’s software pulls off one of the great computer science feats of the era: It combs through all available databases, identifying related pieces of information, and puts everything together in one place,” Businessweek said. It’s “the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.”
And soon to show up in a film near you.
Years ago, experts chortled at “Enemy of the State,” the 1998 thriller that had technicians instantly shuffling spy satellites around to track its hero (played by Will Smith). If only! they said.
Today, that all seems so 20th century.
Stein is a freelance writer.