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'Mission: Impossible': A Dubai landmark aims for film history

December 21, 2011 |  3:47 pm

In “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” Tom Cruise's super spy Ethan Hunt scampers up the facade of the Burj Khalifa, the needle-like structure that punctures the clouds high above Dubai.

Audiences have been delighted by Cruise's stunts, which he performed himself — the A-lister swings from a high point on the 240-story structure, the tallest building in the world, and even kicks in a few windows.

But as cinematic symbols go, the Burj is an oddity. Most action sequences set astride modern skyscrapers happen considerably west of here. Superman flew up the Eiffel Tower. Godzilla palmed the Empire State Building. And in “Independence Day,” aliens blew up the U.S. Bank Tower.

The Burj is trying to, well, top them all.

Opened only last year, the 2,717-foot-tall building was designed by the American architect behind Chicago's Trump Tower and is named after Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a ruler of neighboring Abu Dhabi who supported the project. The leaders of this glitzy and monied Emirate and the real-estate giant Emaar Properties built the Burj (which means “tower”)  to attract attention and tourism--and, as this is Dubai, because they could.

Their idea was to give this city a signature structure, as well as a large-scale home for hotels, offices and residences (though the little secret is that the 2008 financial crisis has resulted in a high vacancy rate, leading some wags to proclaim that the Burj Khalifa is not only the world's tallest building but also its emptiest).

Viewed from the outside, the Burj is impressive, a collection of overlapping cylinders that resembles a cross between a rocket ship and a collection of ultra-modern smokestacks. Its slender sleekness has the effect of making it seem even taller. But can it take its place among cinema's enduring icons?

Some of this city's residents think so. On a recent Thursday, a man who identified himself as Moaz was standing at its base marveling at the “M:I” connection. “The movie is good for Dubai. It helps a lot of people know about the city, and the building.” (Filmmakers decided to shoot at the Burj because of the conduciveness to big stunts, the novelty factor and, less officially, the marketing appeal it gives the movie in this part of the word.)

The people who operate the Burj Khalifa are not shy about the Cruise connection. In the building's lobby entrance, a corner has been cordoned off as a sort of “M:I” shrine. Behind a velvet rope sits Brad Bird's director's chair and a photo of Cruise at the building. The actor inscribed the photo to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai whose face is omnipresent in this coastal city.

“Thank you for making the impossible possible,” Cruise wrote. No matter how much money you have or how many people you rule, there's no credibility like movie-star credibility.

One local, however, was less inclined to see things that way. “The building is good for Tom Cruise,” said the man, who was dressed in a traditional kandura and gave his name as Abdullah. “Not the other way around.”

Though striking to look at, the experience of entering the Burj is more prosaic. Visitors access the building through the Dubai Mall in a non-descript storefront entrance across from a Subway sandwich shop and a Mrs. Fields cookie outlet. It costs about $28 — nearly the same price as three “M:I” tickets — and requires advance booking of several days for a ticket to the observation deck.

After passing through security, it takes some time to reach the elevator that will whisk you high above the city. You're led, to a soundtrack of New Age music, through winding corridors adorned with grand proclamations of the Burj's greatness. “It is an unparalleled accomplishment in the history of mankind,” reads one sign.

Still, the view from the observation deck of the 124th floor lives up to some of the hype. Looking down (sans stunt harness), it's hard not be struck by how high up you are, not only above the ground — people look like action figures, cars like Hess trucks — but above the other buildings, as though you're standing on the wing of an airborne plane.

Much like the experience of watching a Tom Cruise movie, to peer down from the top of the Burj Khalifa is to find yourself asking life's big questions. What is our place in this vast world? What are the limits of man's ability to conquer his physical domain? And is wearing a keffiyeh on a skyscraper's windy observation deck really a good idea?

Riding down after witnessing the world from such a vantage point, it's easy to continue to ponder the rich mysteries of the universe. And, maybe, more Dubai-centric matters too — video ads in the elevator promote apartment rentals in the tower.


Movie Review: 'Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol'

Rock of Ages: Tom Cruise tries something scary — singing

'Mission: Impossible': Stars get spousal support at premiere

--Steven Zeitchik in Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Photo: The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images