Is there anything better than being a fictional spy? The answer is no, and if you took longer than two seconds to say so, then you deserve a stern talking to. Spies get to travel the globe, fight villains, and wear slick suits, all while making bad puns somehow entertaining. Seriously, spies are so intriguing that they have been the subjects of books, video games, and television shows.
Hollywood has even taken some properties like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and The Avengers—no, not that one— and converted them into major motion pictures. Some of these silver screen adaptations have been fairly successful, but none have become a sensation quite like Mission: Impossible.
Tom Cruise’s modern version of this 1960’s TV show, first released in 1996 and followed new agent Ethan Hunt on his missions to stop terrorist acts. As an operative of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) Hunt was given the hardest jobs that required absolute stealth and discretion. As the Mission: Impossible series has shown, stealth was not always a viable option, but Agent Hunt always emerged victorious.
Given the espionage theme of the Mission Impossible series, it only makes sense that Agent Hunt would have a menagerie of unique spy gadgets. Some of these gadgets are used for recording conversations while others are used for transportation, but all of Agent Hunt’s toys serve a purpose. More importantly, many of these gadgets are based on actual devices, which is something that a certain MI6 agent can’t claim.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation will be released on July 31, meaning that now is the perfect time to examine the history of gadgets throughout these films and determine which are actually realistic and which are used purely for entertainment. Of course, many of these gadgets could secretly exist without us common folk knowing about it, but where is the fun in that?
I should mention I haven’t seen Rogue Nation yet, so I didn’t include any of the newest devices.
Communication is essential for any spy, especially when he is working with a team. Agent Hunt has worked with many squads throughout his career, and each one has incorporated communication methods that were more true-to-life. The earpieces used for communication are the most realistic devices added to Mission: Impossible, mostly because they are actually used by military and Secret Service.
Sure Ethan Hunt’s original devices were slightly far-fetched with video capable watches in 1996, but the later Mission: Impossible films took these communicators and whittled them down to the more realistic versions used in the modern world. Now, the devices consist of small microphones and earpieces. Technically, we don’t know if Agent Hunt’s team uses throat-mounted microphones like the military; they could be hiding equipment beneath turtlenecks or button down shirts.
Mission: Impossible has had its fair share of far-fetched gadgets, but one of the best is the magnetic suit worn by Jeremy Renner, aka Brandt. Basically, Brandt needed to infiltrate a top-secret base, but the only way was to jump into a wind tunnel and avoid death via turbine using a fully magnetic bodysuit and a magnetized RC car. Once Brandt was floating harmlessly above the turbine, Benji (Simon Pegg) drove the car and propelled Brandt to his destination. The whole scenario was ridiculous, but the magnetic suit made it more entertaining.
Now, the magnetic suit could technically be part of the “unrealistic gadgets” category, but David Letterman actually debuted a rudimentary version back in 1986. This magnetic suit wasn’t as streamlined as Brandt’s, but it was powerful enough for Letterman to hang from a gigantic refrigerator and cause utter havoc in the grocery aisles. I would not be the slightest bit surprised if Ghost Protocol’s writers got the idea for a magnetic suit from Letterman’s special.
Another borderline gadget used in Mission: Impossible was a pair of gloves that stuck to glass. Agent Hunt used these gloves to scale a building in Dubai and infiltrate a server room. Each glove could only stick to the glass when the electronic lights were blue; red lights meant death. These glass-magnetic (is that a Metallica album?) gloves made the scene more intense as they constantly changed from blue to red to blue again. You didn’t know if Agent Hunt was going to fall or survive the climb!
These gloves would be completely unrealistic, but college students have come to the rescue. Last November, a group of students at Stanford created prototype gloves that stuck to smooth surfaces like plastic and glass. This design was very basic and required slower movement, but the students still managed to scale some glass walls. Soon, we can all climb tall buildings with ease!
The magnetic suit and the glass gloves are more humorous gadgets from Mission: Impossible, but some of the others are slightly more dangerous. Both Agent Hunt’s team and the villains in each film have used violent gadgets to gain the upper hand in battle. M:I:III featured most of these unique weapon types, and all three were actually quite realistic.
During an early mission, Agent Hunt and Luther Stickell use both magnetic remote explosives and computer operated turrets to rescue a woman that had an explosive implanted in her head. Both of the weapons used in the rescue attempt were almost completely realistic, minus the magnetic explosives.
Remote detonated explosive devices have been around since the Civil War, but they haven’t incorporated magnetic elements. The implanted bomb has been used in the past few years by terrorists trying to avoid detection because the bombs can be made without metallic elements.
Okay, I have officially killed the mood, so let’s talk about one of the more positive gadgets used in Mission: Impossible.
During Ghost Protocol, Agent Hunt and Benji needed to infiltrate the Kremlin and steal some data. Unfortunately, the data was down a hall guarded by an alert soldier. There didn’t seem to be a way to avoid the guard, but Benji took a robot-controlled projection screen and slowly walked down the hall. This screen used a video camera and a constantly moving robot to show a video feed of an empty hallway. The robot kept the soldier in frame at all times, so the image always appeared at the right angle.
This can’t be realistic, right? Actually, the BBC show Top Gear used a very similar concept in 2012 to create an “invisible van”. This van had television screens mounted on each side panel and video cameras pointing in each direction. The cameras would take the video feed and send it to the screens, making it appear as if you were looking through the van at the other sidewalk. The plan was brilliant, but the execution was slightly lacking. Either way, this episode did prove that the projection screen was more realistic than completely fake.
Ok, back to the more grounded devices…
While infiltrating the Vatican, Agent Hunt used the tool that every good spy needs in his or her field kit. That’s right, Tom Cruise broke out the grapple gun. This portable gun shot a grappling hook more than 50-feet in the air and included a waist-mounted winch. Agent Hunt used this little winch to quickly scale a wall, and then he used the winch in reverse to quickly lower himself down the other side. It’s a nifty way to quickly sneak onto a property without the guards or cameras noticing.
This piece of transportation technology was more theoretical until 2012, when BYU students developed a rifle-mounted grapple gun and portable winch for the Air Force. This version wasn’t quite as compact as Agent Hunt’s, but the BYU version had multiple attachments for any type of wall and could hold a lot of weight. Although, the students didn’t say how long the winch’s battery would last out in the field. A shortened battery life could become problematic for a super spy.
As you can see, the Mission: Impossible franchise has used more than a few realistic gadgets. Now let’s change the subject and talk about the stranger devices in Agent Hunt’s utility belt.
The first thing you notice when watching any Mission: Impossible film is the method that the IMF uses to dispense missions. Instead of sending a dossier or making a phone call, the agency chose to create a pair of sunglasses, a phone booth, a disposable camera, etc. that could determine an agent’s identity via retinal scan and play a prerecorded message. Oh, and the device would also self-destruct after five seconds.
Sure, retina scans are common, especially if you work in a high security business, but the self-destruct function is slightly less believable. Is there a specific trigger that starts the five-second countdown? More importantly, has the device ever prematurely self-destructed? M:I:II would have been a much shorter film if those fancy sunglasses had malfunctioned.
Look, most of the gadgets in Mission: Impossible aren’t the most realistic devices ever, but they generally become the centerpiece of great cinematic moments. For example, exploding chewing gum made certain scenes in the first movie much more exciting.
If you remember, Mission: Impossible had one of the best death scenes ever used in a movie, and exploding gum was the reason why. A double agent was trying to escape in a helicopter when Agent Hunt smashed the exploding gum onto the windshield and leapt onto the back of a speeding train, narrowly avoiding the explosions. Name one other movie where someone dies via exploding bubble gum. If Looks Could Kill? Oh yeah, I forgot about that one. My point is that Tom Cruise and Co. did a fantastic job using said bubble gum as a plot device. RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT!
Exploding bubble gum would have been the most far-fetched, impossible piece of technology if not for a dreadful accident back in 2009. Apparently, a college student in the Ukraine dipped his chewing gum into an unknown substance, causing it to explode when he began chewing. The student was killed and his jaw was blown off. This unfortunate event did prove that exploding bubble gum is technically possible, but so far no one has recreated it like in the first film.
Another slightly less realistic gadget used in Mission: Impossible is some special tape for the throat. This tape covers the Adam’s apple and somehow disguises the wearer’s voice, which comes in handy for a super famous agent like Ethan Hunt. The interesting aspect lies in how Hunt gets his new voices. Each piece of throat tape has a data connection that can be used to upload new voices. I’m not entirely sure whether the tape runs off of Wi-Fi or 4G, but it seems to work even when the transmitter is in the bottom of a sewer. Agent Hunt has used the tape to sound like a southern senator, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and countless other characters.
Despite the entertainment factor, this method of disguising your voice isn’t very realistic at all. Most voice changers—at least the ones you and I can buy—are handheld devices that make you sound like the villain from Scream. There doesn’t seem to be a product in existence that works quite as well as the throat tape from Mission: Impossible. Too bad, because that voice tape would make Halloween so much more fun.
Obviously, exploding gum and voice changing tape are entertaining gadgets to have in your spy arsenal, but they are less realistic than one of the more subtle pieces of equipment. The fancy contact lenses, first introduced in Ghost Protocol, is a wearable piece of tech used for finding terrorists in a large crowd and taking photos. As of right now, these contact lenses don’t exist, but South Korean scientists have created contact lenses with LED’s. The next step is adding the ability to take photos. This is one step closer to Mission: Impossible, but not close enough for my liking.
These contact lenses are intriguing pieces of equipment, but they pale in comparison to some of the other gadgets introduced in Ghost Protocol. One of the first sequences in the movie was a Russian prison break that used a completely unrealistic portable gravity well. This microwave-sized device created a black hole that ripped apart a floor in the prison’s basement so Agent Hunt could escape. This almost sounds like the plot of a Lex Luthor/Gorilla Grodd comic book.
Another one of the borderline realistic/unrealistic gadgets is a pair of video surveillance glasses. One of the earliest scenes in the original Mission: Impossible introduced discreet glasses that recorded video and projected it to watches and computers. Each member of Agent Hunt’s team wore these glasses and used them to track enemies and complete missions. Plus, the picture below shows how downright stylish these glass were.
Technically, there are glasses in existence that can record conversations and video, but one difference remains. These glasses transfer all of the video files to an on-deck storage unit. The only way to get video off of the glasses is by connecting them to a computer.
Speaking of portable date—see what I did there—Mission: Impossible had used many different methods for transferring information. The most interesting of these methods was the almost microscopic date chip used in M:I:III. If you remember, a captured agent found a way to record a video on a minuscule black dot, which she shipped to Agent Hunt.
This data device was integral to discovering the villain’s true identity and saving Hunt’s wife. Miniature data storage sounds fantastic, but we are very far away from that future. Currently, scientists at the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science are finding ways to miniaturize storage using atoms, but these devices can’t function above -450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Of course, none of these past devices can compare to the grand daddy of them all—the rubber mask. Both the TV and film versions of Mission: Impossible were known for their “Masters of Disguise”, largely in part to perfectly crafted rubber masks. Seemingly everyone in the Mission: Impossible universe, be they hero or villain, has a never-ending supply of these masks for every situation. In M:I:II alone, both Hunt and the rogue agent Sean Ambrose switch masks in almost every scene. Hunt even uses one of these masks to trick the villain into killing one of his crew. Quite impressive.
In the earlier films, there wasn’t an explanation for how these masks came to be so readily available, but both M:I:III and Ghost Protocol made a point of showing the masks’ creation. Apparently, IMF uses advanced 3D printers to create these masks in a matter of minutes. Sure, this doesn’t explain how Hunt got a hold of a perfect mask in a remote Australian bunker, but that’s not the point. What matters is that 3D printers are almost capable of recreating the Mission: Impossible masks, but the technology is still lacking. Modern day printers work well when making an Iron Man or Game of Thrones mask, but these printers can’t quite use the form fitting material needed to make a perfect rubber mask.
So there you have it. Most of the gadgets used in the Mission: Impossible franchise are unrealistic, but that fact doesn’t stop the series from being fun. Do you have any favorites from the series? Let us know in the comments.
I have looked everywhere, but what about the device that caused the floor to melt away. That has to be based on something actually owned by the military. Especially, since the military is so far ahead of us in technology.
The laser redirector in the first movie is real.
The laser redirector in the first movie is possible.