We are halfway through 2022 and over a decade into what I can only describe as the ‘nostalgiacene’ epoch of blockbuster evolution. And it doesn’t look like the world is ready to move on. Though, I most certainly am.
We’ve been waiting patiently for the release of Top Gun: Maverick for two years now, as it became the last of the big movies affected by the COVID pandemic. The premiere was shifted and moved multiple times as Paramount refused to gamble the way WB did with Tenet, at the time touted as the saviour of cinemas knocked to their knees by widespread and wholesale societal shutdowns. We all know how this story ended and how humiliating and costly it must have been both for WB and for Christopher Nolan who pushed to release their 300 million juggernaut during a moment of respite between infection waves. Now that the pandemic seems to be in the rear-view mirror (at least as far Western economies are concerned), it became safe for Top Gun: Maverick to peer out of its burrow and… spread its wings, I suppose.
For what it’s worth, it seems to have been mostly successful in supplanting Tenet as the pandemic saviour of cinemas, or rather as Captain Hindsight gloatingly showing WB they ought to have waited out the storm instead of losing colossal amounts of money. The reviews are glowing, and the box office receipts are equally satisfying, which inadvertently vindicates Tom Cruise as the world’s last leading man. However, what worried me on the way back from the cinema was that the furore over Top Gun: Maverick may have been for the most part bloated with hyperbole and that a lot of the critical acclaim was likely heavily swayed by the movie’s cunning use of nostalgia as a weapon of manipulation.
Don’t get me wrong: I too was on many occasions taken aback by such emotional wizardry, as I fist-pumped (figuratively at least) during Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and a few others. Now, I am not here to defend any of those movies considering what I am about to say about Top Gun: Maverick, because it is possible to successfully capitalize on the viewer’s nostalgia for the source material while telling an original story within the universe (though, at least in the case of Star Wars, my own positive response may have been more decisively coloured by the fact it had been decades since a previous good Star Wars movie was released). What I do find increasingly objectionable, however, is that it has become all too easy for studios to use the current fad for legacy sequels to make a quick buck out of properties they have on their books (which is perfectly legitimate in principle) without paying too much attention to what should be a primary mission statement of any Hollywood blockbuster, i.e. telling an interesting story.
Sadly, I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick can be described as a worthy successor to the 1986 original. By the way, the Tony Scott-directed Top Gun wasn’t perfect either and by no means would anyone be able to call it a great story. It was a platter of cheese complete with Harold Faltermeyer’s epic score, Kenny Loggins’ songs, topless beach volleyball in slow-motion and enough one-liners to satiate even the most ardent 80s apologists. However, what Top Gun also had in spades was entertainment value. It was a wall-to-wall festival of adrenaline centred around its ground-breaking access to real-life fighter jets and the filmmakers’ ballsy attitude to stuntmanship.
And while Top Gun: Maverick prides itself on fitting its cast (including Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro and others) into real planes, the movie simply does not push the envelope far enough to distinguish itself from the 1986 original. Think how Mad Max: Fury Road nostalgically references the stunt work that went into making Mad Max and The Road Warrior while pushing well past them and becoming a wholly unique event, all in addition to telling a fresh story within its well-established universe. You will immediately see that Top Gun: Maverick falls short of expectations because the filmmakers weren’t predominantly interested in using Top Gun as a launching pad to do something interesting, challenging or at least refreshing. Instead, they were solely invested in emotionally manipulating viewers for whom Top Gun is a well of memories.
Thus, this is not an accident Top Gun: Maverick opens in the way that it does – as a carbon copy of the original – with golden hues, majestic silhouettes of military equipment against the rising sun and the immediately recognizable theme blaring through the speakers. It is also entirely predictable that the movie introduces a cast of new characters who are meant to embody the archetypes left behind by the cast of Top Gun. In fact, the entire movie is simply filled with elements of blatant homage – Miles Teller playing the piano in the bar, topless beach-based sporting events, briefings against the backdrop of stars and stripes, helmetless biking, supersonic flybys and even the fact the movie eventually involves the characters escaping their would-be captors in a F-14 Tomcat – all of which effectively marginalize any attempt at telling an interesting story that could stand on its own two feet. Instead, Top Gun: Maverick effectively remakes the original in a suitably abridged format that allows this truncated and re-heated narrative to co-exist with a sub-story about Maverick having to patch things up with Goose’s son (Teller) as well as a rushed romantic ersatz involving Jennifer Connelly’s character (who, akin to Tom Cruise, also seems to be ageless), all in brief windows between frequent obligatory call-backs and overt visual nods to the original.
I am not exactly surprised that a grown-ass man sitting next to me wept like a child when the movie ended. In all fairness, if he hadn’t made a mess of himself, I would have questioned the movie’s ability to do that one job it decided it wanted to do in the first place. I have to say I also welled up when it came to high-fives, hugs and freeze frames while Faltermeyer’s theme was swelling appropriately. Great. The movie engenders a physiological response in the viewer. So does porn.
Top Gun: Maverick is truly a shameless piece of emotional manipulation that has absolutely no reason to exist apart from abusing the audience’s nostalgia for the 1986 Top Gun, which was a block of 80s cheese, hearty and pungent. In turn, this movie is a two-hour artistic installation about nostalgia for cheese where good money was spent to tell me how great this 80s cheese was without either letting me taste it or showing me a good modern recipe that elevates its flavour profile and provides an exciting experience of some kind.
I guess, this might be my way of saying I’ve reached the end of my rope as far as legacy sequels are concerned because at this point, I’d rather go to the fridge and have the cheese instead of listening to a guy telling me how great the cheese used to be. At least, if you’re about to spend two hours having me reminisce about cheese, put on a spread of some kind. Let me taste it. Or better yet, show me how you use the cheese in a way that makes it interesting. Because at this point in the game – when every other big budget studio effort is a legacy sequel in some guise – it is no longer enough to just talk about the cheese. You need to show it and embrace it. And make the cheese your own.