“I think this is a film for women,” my wife commented quietly after our screening of Top Gun 3D, and in the ensuing conversation, it became increasingly hard to deny. For all the thundering shots of fighter planes in their jingoistic glory, for all the pretense of manly men testing themselves against their own self-doubts, for all the pumped-up 80s excess on the screen and soundtrack alike, the film seems to cater to women’s sensibilities as much or more than men’s.
Of course, that doesn’t change the stunning flight sequences, captured by director Tony Scott in an era before CGI and whose like we will never see again. Whenever Top Gun leaves the banality of its earthbound story, it takes on a whole new life as daredevil pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his buddy Goose (Anthony Edwards) dazzle us with their breakneck acrobatics. Scott puts the stakes in the most obvious possible terms – repeating key plot points multiple times with trite, obvious dialogue – but following the drama isn’t the point. Top Gun’s strength lies in pure MTV spectacle, and if you’re going to take that ride, the big screen is the only place to see it. I’m guessing that, like me, a large number of people first experienced this movie on pan-and-scan VHS tapes. It’s an entirely new movie on the big screen, which becomes abundantly clear with the first shots over the opening credits.
In light of that, it’s unfortunate that the new transfer is such a spotty effort. Some shots look as crisp and sharp as you’d expect, but serious pixilation overwhelms too many others. On the IMAX screen, the grains look bigger than your average house cat. Scott’s devotion to colored air and extreme close-ups may play some part in that, but with interest in restored re-releases dropping precipitously, Paramount may simply have throttled back the budget and let us suffer through a less-than-perfect picture. At least the 3D is decent, though it can hardly improve on the already exceptional aerial shots.
Once we come back to the ground, the film falls flat on its face. Its ridiculous cardboard characters can’t stand up to even a basic litmus test of plausibility and the script’s penchant for explaining everything multiple times to catch the rubes up to speed threatens each and every onscreen relationship. Edwards salvages a great deal of it with his effervescent charm, while Cruise and Val Kilmer (playing his chief rival Iceman) display the kind of scorching chemistry normally reserved for hardcore gay porn. Poor Kelly McGillis can’t hope to compete with that, though she makes a game effort to sell us on her romance with Maverick in what we’ll generously call a subplot. It all arrives amid countless smaller, equally risible decisions (why on Earth would they give god-king of cinematic grumps Michael Ironside the nickname “Jester?”) that hopelessly mire it in empty 80s superficiality.
Which brings me back to my initial point… and Top Gun’s saving grace. For while the boys in the audience can ooh and ah to the awesome fighter planes, the girls can revel in the eye candy on the ground. Bronzed shirtless hardbodies flaunt it on the volleyball court, flash it in the showers and even engage in a lot of not-at-all-suggestive embraces as they go through their manly man paces. Contrast that with McGillis’s Charlie, who never flashes so much as a bare thigh even during her lovemaking scene. Indeed, she acts as a ready surrogate for the gals in the audience: cool under pressure, tough as nails, and refusing to give even an inch to her cocky suitor Maverick. She dictates the terms of the relationship, and earns herself a reformed bad boy with a heart of gold by the end of the flick.
That makes Top Gun an undeniably cheesy yet strangely appealing time capsule, with a little something for everyone provided we understand that it’s all bubblegum. You’ll rarely see a movie this shallow, but neither has any other carried this particular combination of commercial flash and unacknowledged subtext. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer amassed a fortune with bums-on-seats entertainment like this, and for better or worse, changed moviemaking as a result. Couple that with Scott’s one-of-a-kind vision (which I never appreciated until his untimely death) and suddenly we have a bizarrely fitting piece of history. Top Gun is no one’s idea of a great movie, but it is a cinematically significant movie, and it’s hard not to find something to like… even if you secretly hate yourself for doing so.