Mission: Impossible gadgets, real-world tech show how far we've come since '96

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to join us for this retrospective ahead of Mission: Impossible -- Fallout.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
11 min read
Ethan Hunt climbs the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, one of the series' wild stunts that showcases a cool gadget.

Ethan Hunt climbs the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, one of the series' wild stunts that showcases a cool gadget.

Paramount Pictures

The adventures of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) have seen him and his Impossible Mission Force (IMF) teams employ some pretty wild gadgets and cutting-edge real-world tech as he hunts down the bad guys.

Over more than two decades, the series has evolved from espionage-heavy conspiracy thriller into a globetrotting, stunt-driven action extravaganza for the information age. However, laptops, spy cameras and all manner of increasingly implausible gadgets remain as crucial to each fight as fists and firearms.

With Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, the sixth movie in the franchise, out this week, let's look at how the gear in the films has evolved in the 22 years since the original.

Mission: Impossible

Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) shows Hunt the explosive chewing gum that'll save him twice in the first Mission: Impossible.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible (1996)

The first movie was directed by Brian De Palma, and its convoluted plot centers on a mole trying to sell on the black market a disc containing the names of all the CIA's undercover agents, with Hunt framed for the crime.

It's a little weird that all this sensitive data would be kept in one place -- the nonofficial cover (NOC) list -- but it certainly ensures that the stakes remain high.

The film opens with a scene where Hunt tears off one of the series' signature latex masks, which look back to the TV show that inspired the movies.

They're used on three occasions during the movie, but the first two are just Cruise wearing impressive latex masks (kudos to makeup artist Rob Bottin), and the removal of the last one -- when Hunt impersonates Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) -- now looks like something out of a video game cut scene from this era.


You can definitely trust Jim Phelps. For sure.

Paramount Pictures

We also get a little reminder of the past when Jim smokes on a plane to cover up the self-destructing of the mission briefing tape, which he receives after a coded conversation with a flight attendant.

The movie's most famous scene sees Hunt being lowered into a secure mainframe room in the CIA headquarters to retrieve the NOC list, and the computer's old-fashioned trackball mouse stands out by a mile.

This movie's last major gadget is explosive gum, which Hunt uses to blow up a fish tank in his escape from the IMF early on and later slaps onto the helicopter to kill two treacherous double agents after a spectacular chase sequence on a bullet train going through the Channel Tunnel.

The Channel Tunnel, which connects Britain to France, was pretty fresh at this point, having opened in 1994.

Hunt's team uses gadgets such as glasses that transmit unrealistically sharp video to remote watch display, floppy discs, phone booths and a gloriously chunky 1994 Nokia 232 phone.


You know this scene, right?

Paramount Pictures

It also includes an early example of Apple product placement, with the PowerBook 5300c showing up several times in the movie. The company was struggling at the time (having just reported a quarterly loss of $740 million), but it set up a $15 million promotional tie-in for Mission: Impossible.

This included a "web adventure" site, which is still viewable but sadly no longer playable.

We also get a reminder of the internet's early days, when Hunt accesses Usenet -- a server protocol started in 1980 and used for sharing messages in groups based around common interests.

In a Bible discussion group, Hunt uses coded language to contact arms dealer Max. This illicit exchange was mirrored in real life (in a less dangerous way) as Usenet became an "under the radar" file-sharing system in the early '10s.

Also, Hunt doesn't even fire a gun in this movie. But that would change in...


Things get a whole lot more ... impossibler in the second movie.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

This is the one with motorcycle jousting. Easily the most "of its time" entry into the series, Mission: Impossible 2 is the movie where Hunt transforms from spy into a near-superhuman action hero.

It's directed by the legendary John Woo, and his trademarks -- doves, slo-mo and impractical-but-so-darn-cool dual pistols -- are all here. They're enhanced by a Limp Bizkit version of the theme song and Hans Zimmer's dramatic score.

This "extreme" mentality is even evident in the gadgets, with Hunt getting his mission from a pair of Oakley Romeo sunglasses (with a HUD on lenses) that were fired to him by rocket from a helicopter as he's standing on top of a cliff in Moab, Utah.

The masks become more effective with the addition of a voice changer strip that agents stick on their throat. It's a little ridiculous, but it allows them to blend in far more than they could in the previous movie and makes the reveals that much more dramatic -- and there are plenty of them.


Nyah Nordoff-Hall and Hunt compete for the most beautiful hair. 

Paramount Pictures

When femme fatale Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) is charged with infiltrating the bad guys' base, she has an untraceable transponder injected into her, allowing Hunt to creepily track her via satellite as she feeds IMF information about her evil ex -- rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) -- and his diabolical scheme.

Turns out he's trying to acquire the genetically modified Chimera virus, which kills victims horribly, so he can sell it to the highest bidder. The odd love triangle is one of the movie's similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, as highlighted by ComingSoon.

The movie might be more extreme, but there's some recognizable real-world tech in it too. Apple continued its partnership with the franchise and Apple Powerbook G3s are seen several times.

We also catch sight of a Kodak DC290 Zoom camera and a distinctive, unidentified Motorola phone. We reached out to the company about this, but they had no info about it, so it's most likely an unreleased prototype or prop.

Hunt uses the timer on a Casio G-Shock DW-6900-1V for the dramatic countdown after Nyah is infected with the virus.

IMF must have upped its agents' conditioner allowance for the turn of the century, because Hunt's hair is pretty spectacular in this movie. The real impossible mission here is not getting hypnotized by it during the more balletic scenes.

Keep a eye out for Dominic Purcell (who's since starred in Prison Break, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) as one of Ambrose's goons.


Hunt's hair might be less beautiful, but he's found love with Julia.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

JJ Abrams took over as director and co-writer for the more grounded third movie. This is exemplified in how Hunt receives his mission -- from a disposable Kodak Power Flash camera with a retinal scanner -- and the focus on his personal life, with the introduction of his fiancee, Julia.

The tech gets smaller too, from the microbombs the bad guys plant in people's heads to the microdot video that gives Hunt his first hint of a traitor working in IMF.

Tom Cruise Films Mission Impossible III In China

Never stop running, Ethan! He's holding a Nokia N92.

Paramount Pictures

This traitor is helping ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian (a terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman) acquire the Rabbit's Foot -- a WMD he plans to sell to terrorists. Davian is a particularly effective villain, especially in the chilling precredits scene.

We get a better sense of the tech behind the masks in this movie, when they make one midmission. After mapping Davian's face with multiple covert photos, they 3D print a mask and spray paint the skin tone.

When Hunt puts the mask on, a clever camera pan hides the transition from mask to CGI to Hoffman's actual face.

The voice changer strip is explained too -- Hunt forces Davian to read a phrase that's transmitted to Luther, who remotely uploads the voice match to Hunt's strip. It's nuts, but it creates a nice moment of tension as he waits for his voice to change.


Luther Stickell returns in the third movie, which also introduces Benji Dunn.

Paramount Pictures

This movie also features some remote-controlled gadgets. IMF computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) operates several sentry machine guns with a trackerball mouse early in the movie, and drones are used in the spectacular bridge sequence.

In terms of real-world tech, this is the first movie in the series without any Apple products. Luther uses a heavy duty Getac 5128 laptop during the Vatican operation and several characters use Nokia N92s.

Mission: Impossible 3 reveals IMF headquarters, hidden under the Virginia Department of Transport, for the first time, and during his escape from this location, Hunt steals a Motorola DTR650 walkie-talkie.

The agency must have cut its conditioner budget too, as Hunt's hair is much shorter and more practical.

Also, check out a pre-Breaking Bad Aaron Paul as Julia's clueless brother.


Benji explains the dangers of Hunt's electro adhesion gloves in Ghost Protocol.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (2011)

It looks like someone told Hunt to eat an Apple a day, because the company's devices are back in a big way in the fourth movie, which was director Brad Bird's first live-action project -- his previous work included The Iron Giant, The Incredibles (and now Incredibles 2!) and Ratatouille.

Ghost Protocol takes a fresh approach to gadgets, as the entire IMF is disavowed -- Ghost Protocol -- after a rogue nuclear strategist frames Hunt and his team for bombing the Kremlin.

Left without their usual support network, their equipment isn't so effective. Our first hint of this comes early, when Hunt gets his mission from a screen hidden in a grungy phone booth (protected by a retinal scanner) -- he is forced to hit it when the usual self-destruct sequence fails.

The gadgets continue to fail when the team goes to Dubai and their plan is ruined by a malfunctioning mask-maker. In fact, the only mask we see in this movie is worn by the villain, Kurt Hendricks, in a slightly bewildering bait and switch.


Agent Jane Carter gets ready to light the fuse.

Paramount Pictures

As a result of mask failure, Hunt must engage in the movie's most famous sequence. He climbs up the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world, using a pair of electro adhesion gloves to reach a server room on the 130th floor.

The audience is primed for something to go wrong when Hunt learns that a blue indicator means the gloves are sticking (blue is glue) while red means they aren't (red is dead). When they start to malfunction, we get one of the series' most engaging stunts as he must make do without them.

In a nice throwback to the second movie's sunglasses, he wears a pair of clear Oakley Wind Jacket goggles during the climb.

This movie introduces high tech contact lenses that allow agents to scan crowds and identify faces, as well capture images of nuclear launch codes and send them to a briefcase printer (with scrambled numbers).

As part of the effort to stop Hendrix, Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) must levitate by donning a magnetic chain-mail suit held aloft by remote control robot as he tries to deactivate a satellite.


Things get heated when Hunt confronts William Brandt.

Paramount Pictures

After this, Hunt drives a BMW i8 hybrid sports car with a HUD and collision detector, ahead of his final battle with Hendrix in an automated car park, purpose built for the movie, in Mumbai. The inspiration came from Volkswagen's Autostadt in Germany.

Looking at the real world tech, Apple products save the day when the IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin archives.

Hunt uses an iPhone 4 to generate codes that get them through doors, then he and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) use an iPad 2 and camera attachment to project an image of an empty corridor onto a screen -- fooling a guard into thinking there's nobody there (and offering a few visual jokes).

We also see Benji using a MacBook Air, with a protective cover, several times.


Ghost Protocol gets fancy in Mumbai.

Paramount Pictures

It's not all Apple though. Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) gathers intel with a Canon VIXIA-HV40 camcorder (which she later links to a balloon), while LG monitors can be seen in the IMF train safehouse in Moscow and Hunt tracks Hendrix through Dubai with a Dell Streak phone/tablet hybrid.

Things even take a luxurious turn when Carter uses a Vertu Constellation Ayxta phone in Mumbai.

The IMF returns to Apple for the movie's conclusion, when Hunt offers his allies iPhone 4s containing their next mission, which they choose to accept. This gives us our first hint of the Syndicate, leading directly into...


Hunt and Brandt spring a trap in Rogue Nation.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation (2015)

This is the one that opens with its biggest stunt, in which Hunt hangs off the side of an Airbus A400M military transport plane.

The fifth movie is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who rose to fame as co-screenwriter of The Usual Suspects and previously teamed up with Cruise as director of Jack Reacher.

After the high-octane precredits scene, we go old-school for Hunt's briefing, which he receives in a London record store after going through an elaborate jazz music trivia Q&A. Using hand print authentication on the turntable, his vinyl briefing has a suitably warm, scratchy sound until it takes a sinister turn.

We learn that his briefing has been sent by the aforementioned Syndicate -- an "anti-IMF" shadow organization committing acts of terror -- just before Hunt is gassed and his contact killed in front of him.


Ilsa Faust can match Ethan at every turn.

Paramount Pictures

He later encounters disavowed MI6 agent Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who proves to be his match in every way as they play a cat-and-mouse game to take down the Syndicate, led by ex-MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

The situation isn't helped by CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who sets out to dismantle the IMF and deconstructs Hunt as being "both arsonist and fireman" for his wild stunts over the years -- he has a point! He doesn't believe the Syndicate exists, so the IMF is shut down.

Early on, we're treated to a slick, gadget-rich sequence at a Vienna opera house where an on-the-run Hunt is trying to identify Lane.

Deep breath... Benji is briefed via glasses with a HUD, scrambles security with a tiny device he attaches to the main power circuit and then uses a twinned device to transform an opera brochure into a monitor that taps into security -- with a Kindle-style monochrome screen.


Benji is surrounded by gadgets in Vienna.

Paramount Pictures

Hunt later realizes that an assassin trying to take out the Austrian chancellor has the same kind of contact lens connected to remote camera, hinting that the Syndicate has the IMF's tech. The chancellor is later killed by a car bomb hidden in a briefcase, suggesting that the bad guys have a crazy system of redundancies.

When the team goes to Morocco, Isla has a cool timer with a massive display on her wrist, hinting at the underwater sequence to come.

This movie only has a single instance of the mask being used (beyond Benji's fantasy infiltration) but it's extremely surprising and effective.

The branding of the real-world tech shifts in this movie, with the IMF favoring Nokia Lumia 930 phones and Microsoft Surface tablets. Members of the Syndicate use Dell XPS 15 laptops.


Ethan and Ilsa confront a trapped Solomon Lane, who'll appear in the next movie.

Paramount Pictures

When we first meet Benji, he's playing a Microsoft Xbox One on a trio of Dell monitors -- a pretty sweet gaming setup -- and we catch sight of the nonexistent Self-Destruct Edition of Halo 5: Guardians (it's unlikely that real-world gamers would appreciate such an edition) before he makes a call on a Cisco phone.

In Hunt's safehouse, he shows Benji the presumed dead government agents who've joined the Syndicate on a TCL monitor.

When we reach the movie's climax, the IMF captures Lane in a bespoke, bulletproof glass cell, where he's gassed in a neat mirror of what happened to Hunt at the start.

However, this also means that Lane is the series' first villain to survive and he shows up (with a big old prison beard) in the trailer for Mission: Impossible -- Fallout -- which also brings the series' first returning director in McQuarrie.

We don't know what capacity Lane appears in yet, but we'll find out about that, Henry Cavill's mustache and the IMF's choice of phones when the movie opens July 27 in the US and UK, and Aug. 2 in Australia.

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