And I’m Ecstatic it Exists
This is a 2-part post/essay/rant. Part 1, which is here, is the first installment: Top Gun: Maverick is terrible.
Part 2, And I’m Ecstatic it Exists, which I have written in my head but not with the keyboard, will follow.
Top Gun: Maverick was a terrible movie.
Straight. Up. Terrible.
“But SJ,” you’ll say, “It made 700 million dollars at the box office in the first couple of weeks alone! It can’t be that bad!”
And you’re exactly right! Maverick is great business. What it’s terrible at is art, and storytelling, and all the little things that endear us to movies and books and poems and the stage and the microphone, encourage us to embed them in our memory, and want to have them in our lives for years to come. Maverick is a one-hit wonder. It’s pandering to the nostalgia and good memories that its target audience (35-55 year-old males) is still carrying forty years after the first Top Gun infiltrated all our lives and left an permanent impression.
I have a lot of problems with Maverick, and you people are gonna hear about ‘em! And then I’m going to offer some thoughts on why, despite the problems, I still think Maverick was totally fine to make. Why it was totally fine to earn $700,000,000 in the first couple of weeks. And why the overall results would be substantially the same, even if the producers had fixed all the “problems” I’m identifying.
So what’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways. But before I do, let me start with what I liked:
0. THE GOOD
There were only two scene that were very well done. The first was after Maverick’s first crash, when he asked the stunned diner’s patrons, “Where am I?” The little boy who replied, “Earth,” said so much in just one simple word. Awesome. Would that more of the movie had been like this.
Second, we have Rooster and Maverick are on the ground behind enemy lines. Maverick: “What the hell were you thinking?” Rooster: “You told me not to think.” Not only is it funny, it’s a compelling throwback to earlier in the movie, when Maverick had, in fact, told Rooster and the other trainees not to think. That’s the kind of tight dialogue that made Top Gun excellent. It’s raw. It’s real. It sounds like it’s coming from people actually in the situation they’re supposed to be in. And I loved it.
What else was there to like? Well, as you’re about to see, almost nothing.
Right from the start, I’m not interested at all. Sure, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still somewhat “stuck” in a test pilot role, and there’s someone coming to shut down his training program, and he’s supposed to eventually get to Mach 10, but I don’t care about those issues one bit.
So what if he gets to Mach 10? So what if he gets shut down beforehand? I don’t care because the story isn’t compelling at all.
Good stories start with a character who has a problem. A Real Problem. Like, in Harry Potter, Harry’s problem is that he’s constantly being turded upon by the Dursleys, and then even as he succeeds in getting away from them he’s now got an even greater evil to deal with in Voldemort. Who has put out a contract on his life. So he’s got 99 problems, and that bitch Voldemort is all of them. That’s a Problem in the purest sense of the word.
What kind of Problem does Maverick have? None. At all. Budget cuts are not A Problem. The Big Fancy Boss showing up two months early to cancel a program is not A Problem. And even when he’s hauled before some super-secret agency and presented with an opportunity to fly a secret mission, he still doesn’t have A Problem. A power plant coming on-line in some nebulous future isn’t a problem for Maverick.
Who has the problem? The super-secret agency. They are threatened by this power plant, and they’re the ones who want something done about it.
At least in Top Gun Maverick and Goose had significant problems in the form of an enemy they could see and who might, at the flick of a button, end their lives. They also had emotional problems of the needing to prove yourself as better than your old man variety, which drive the internal conflict of the whole first movie. What’s the internal conflict in Maverick? As far as I can tell, the biggest problem is the desire to get back with an old flame who’s doing just fine by herself, thank you very much. Not that compelling, frankly.
If you want a real problem for Maverick, Tom “Iceman” Kaczansky hit it dead on during his conversation with Maverick. He wrote, “It’s time to let go.” Honestly, that’s the real problem and the story that would have been fantastic here. How does Maverick move out of the way for the next generation? How does he check his arrogance, reduce his identity being tied to his position of status, and develop new friendships along the way, while still allowing Rooster et. al. to take the reins and become the hero who saves the day? (While, incidentally, Maverick knows he is the true hero because he, like Mick in Rocky, is the one who actually got him there; even if nobody else realizes it.)
That story, at least, would have been honest with the character and his likely progression from young, arrogant flyboy to washed-out hack. Instead, what we got was a direct rehash of the original Top Gun plot: Maverick does something stupid, screws up, yet still gets rewarded for it and, in the end, saves the day.
Yawn. Wake me up when you’ve actually put some effort into it.
Plus, the whole time it was very on-the-nose. Goose’s son is named “Rooster”. Come on, you couldn’t do any better than that? At least give the kid a reasonable backstory for how he got that call sign, like how Ice Man and Maverick got theirs, or give him a decent call sign that fits with his orphan status, like “Jump Shot”. (Because orphans are bad at playing baseball [they can’t find home], so he has to pick some other sport instead.)
As for the conflict between Maverick and Rooster, apparently Maverick interfered with Rooster’s paperwork for the academy. And that’s why Rooster hates him. Seriously? That’s the best you got? Paperwork? We’re talking about goddamn administrative delays as some kind of motivation for disrespect and disgust? At least give me “You killed my father, you son of a bitch!” That would be believable as a reason. And to completely gloss over that aspect of what should be an incredibly powerful part of their relationship is, frankly, rather disingenuous.
And, finally, um, plot hole: if the aircraft carrier has Tomahawk missiles that can hit an enemy airport, why can’t those same missiles hit the “target” that’s just a few more miles inland? Why can’t the unmanned drones that these trainees have been piloting do this work? Why does this mission need manned aircraft in the first place? Never understood that point. Unless the movie was just a weak-ass excuse to get Tom Cruise back into an airplane and onto a motorbike and onto the beach so that he can proclaim how relevant he still is in Hollywood.
Oh, right, that’s exactly what it was.
Maybe I missed it, but when did the action movie standard become 117 minutes of close-ups of character faces with a few scenes of dogfights splashed around haphazardly?
Honestly, this felt like a drama. Most of the conversations weren’t between two people, they were between two talking heads floating in space. Real people have bodies and exist in some physical space and move. They pick up objects. They stalk through a room. They stand up and sit down. Because they’re nervous, or happy, or frustrated. In Maverick, that’s virtually nonexistent.
At one point I thought, “Does this director have a nostril fetish?”
Plus, there were several scenes that were either reshoots (opening scene of planes launching) or homages (the double football as a throwback to the volleyball game, even down to Maverick stalking out of the game and sliding into a t-shirt). There was waaaay too much of this. One or two scenes would have been enough. This feels like this movie is trying to directly rip off the first, in an attempt to remind viewers exactly why they liked the first movie when they first saw it. It’s actually a very lazy, artistically weak choice.
I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. Penny, for instance. She and Maverick dated. He broke her heart when he left because he broke rules and was reassigned, I assume. Why in the world would she be so nice to him now? At least keep him at a distance, because he hasn’t done anything to earn her respect and care again. He’s done absolutely nothing to earn her feelings, except show up and be handsome. Or maybe, what, listen to her instructions while she’s captaining a sailboat? Which, if that’s all it takes, well, I’ll be at your doorstep tomorrow.
This is another of those “unbelievable” components of the movie that, were they just one or two throughout, would be overlooked. I’ll talk more about that later.
Another point: There are too many insignificant Top Gun trainees for the mission with too little time for backstory on all 12. Rooster, Phoenix, Payback, Bob, Fanboy, Hangman, Omaha, Fritz, Halo, Coyote, Harvard, Yale.
This dilutes the opportunity to understand why each one is there for the mission. Far better would have been to have something like 5 of them selected for this top-secret mission, and then we can get to know them and see them as they deal with the challenges of preparing for what is likely to be a suicide mission. As it is, we don’t really know anything about them at all, so we don’t care, so they just become filler. I guess that’s what was intended, though, since the movie was called Top Gun: Maverick, not Top Gun: The New Recruits.
The problem is, having so many minor characters means that none of them actually become real at all. They don’t start at one point and travel through their own development arcs to end up at another point by the end of the movie. They all remain in the background, supporting Maverick as he plays fast and loose with the rules and, somehow, manages to get away with it yet again.
And I get it, they want to have some kind of “competition” within the Top Gun academy, because that’s what was done the first time. However, it doesn’t make sense in this context at all.
The largest characterization problem exists, however, in the form (or, rather, un-form) of “the enemy”. At least in Top Gun we were fighting the Russians and their MiGs. In any story about the American Revolution you have the dreaded British monarchy and the corresponding Loyalists threatening to subvert the cause from the inside. In Maverick we have a nameless, faceless “enemy” that is just sort of there. They’re not a threat (see: power plant about to come on-line being the inciting incident).
Humans are a visual and auditory species. We believe what we hear and we see. When someone tells us “There’s an enemy over the hill!” we don’t really start running until we can actually see the enemy coming over the hill. We may hear something from another source, but we don’t trust or believe until we can experience it for ourselves.
Because we only have this nebulous “enemy” who doesn’t get a face and doesn’t get a name, it’s like they’re not real. And if they’re not real, they’re not a threat. Consider another 1980s movie, Enemy Mine. Here, it’s pretty clear who “the enemy” is – it’s the alien right in front of your face who’s trying to take your only source of sustenance and/or kill you. It’s pretty clear what you have to do. But in Maverick, we don’t get such tangibility. We don’t get any kind of immediate threat from the enemy. It’s three or four degrees away, filtered through the spy network / satellite photos, and then the mission commander, and then Maverick, to finally the trainees.
It’s no wonder they don’t feel any sense of urgency to actually push the envelope of their own capabilities to complete their flight training as they need to. They don’t care.
Consequently, neither do we.
I don’t believe any of these people are in the Navy, or are even pilots. At least in Top Gun, I did believe that everyone, including Tom Cruise, was actually in the armed services. They walked like Navy men, stiff and straight. They talked like Navy men: short, clipped sentences and Yes sir!s that came straight off the assembly line. They smoked like Navy men. They swore like Navy men. And they peacocked like Navy men, always on the lookout for a way to one-up their competition.
The actors in Maverick, like John Hamm as Cyclone, may be great actors in dramatic roles. But this isn’t supposed to be a drama. It’s supposed to be action. Every single character looked like they were acting. Tom Cruise too. Look back at Cruise’s earlier work, like Top Gun, Rain Man, and Risky Business. You couldn’t tell it was the same person in all of those roles, because he was such a good actor that Cruise disappeared and the character took over.
Here, not only for Cruise’sMaverick, but for everyone else: Cyclone, Penny, Rooster, even the trainer Hondo, just looked like actors playing parts. I didn’t believe for a second that Penny had once had a relationship with Maverick. I didn’t believe for a second that Rooster knew how to fly a plane. I didn’t believe for a second that Hondo knew jack squat about training anyone for anything, much less preparing pilots for high-speed aerial dogfighting.
Because they look like actors, and not characters, I don’t believe in them and I don’t care.
Don’t get me started. This is more artificial than Simon Cowell’s jawline. None of what came out of their mouths sound real. Honestly, if you’re in the back of an airplane that’s going to get shot out of the sky if you don’t go faster, you won’t take the time to say: “If we don’t increase our speed, we’re going to miss our connection with the target.” It’s too many words, too slow, too weak. Instead, someone scared for his life in that moment would be shouting “Speed the fuck up!” or “Hit the goddam gas, man!”
Remember in Top Gun, that scene where Maverick has just gotten chewed out in one of the classes, and Slider is giving him shit for it? He walks by, leans down, and whispers “Slider… [sniffs] … you stink.”
Which is tight. Powerful. And exactly the kind of line an arrogant flyboy would say to put down another arrogant flyboy. Awesome consulting by whatever retired Top Gun pilots they’d recruited to help them with the authenticity.
Ultimately, the dialogue in Maverick sounds like it was carefully crafted by a team of scriptwriters who had a few times watched action movies, but never lived anything more challenging or threatening than a weekend camping trip. Which, in conjunction with the casting mentioned above, just makes this whole thing unappealing to watch.
30 minutes too long. We did not need about 1/3 of the scenes that were included. Sailing a boat? Not necessary. The “training” flights where the pilots failed? Could have been a montage. Two downed pilots behind enemy lines? Didn’t need to happen. Virtually all of the conversations between Maverick and Cyclone… You guessed it, didn’t need to happen. Remember in Top Gun where Viper actually had something to say? Because he actually had some information to give to Maverick about Mav’s old man? There was a point to their antagonism, all the way through, even down to the period where after Maverick washes out and loses his confidence. Viper is there to not only encourage him, but to actually get him back up in the air. Because he needs Maverick, and he respects him. “Give me a call. I’d be proud to fly with you any time.”
Yeah, in this one, none of what Cyclone says or does with and to Maverick is necessary. It is, once again, a contorted effort to put Tom Cruise on the screen for longer and longer times, distorting the story and dragging it out way past what would have been necessary.
There’s an old adage that says, “The story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer.” I guess the producers of Maverick never learned that one.
The soundtrack was scored by Hans Zimmer. And it shows. The original Top Gun soundtrack was all hard rock – Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away and all that. But this was a dramatic score, with sweeping orchestral movements and fade ins, fade outs, and so on. This is not the way to set the scene for action and violent conflict.
Zimmer is a great composer. I love his stuff for movies like Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The thing is, in those situations, he’s writing for symphony, which is a different blend of sounds and emotions than rock and roll. How many Navy pilots get hyped up by a good violin solo? None. How many pump up with AC/DC, Kid Rock, or Marilyn Manson? Every one. So if we’re making movies with these pilots in it, shouldn’t we be matching the music to their emotional states? Which requires rock and roll – driving guitars, solid drums, consistent bass, and poignant vocals, not thirty-piece ensembles which lean only into “evocative” states.
Maverick would have been much better with a few rock and roll bands making the music. Hell, I bet there’s ten thousand who would have jumped at the chance to get the exposure that Kenny Loggins did with Top Gun. Zimmer doesn’t need more credits. This could have been a chance for the producers to reach back and give some up-and-coming artists a real shot at making something for themselves. As it was, they missed.
8. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
One of the major requests that artists make of their audience is that we must ask you to not disbelieve the major premise of what we’re telling you. Honestly, we know that there’s no such thing as magical powers, and we know that you know this, too. But we ask you to suspend that disbelief for a few minutes or a few pages or a few chapters, so that we can tell you the story that we want to tell.
An element of good storytelling is to make the story compelling enough that we’re interested in finding out how everything resolves, but not so far out of the line of reason that we stop suspending that disbelief due to blatant incredulousity.
It starts with Maverick’s first crash of the test plane, while traveling Mach 10.2. Do you know what Mach 10.2 means? Nope, you don’t. Let’s back up.
Mach 1 is the speed of sound, or about 767 miles per hour. About twelve miles per minute, or one mile every six seconds.
Imagine – you’re inside your house, and a tornado is blowing on the walls at 767 miles per hour. Suppose that house disintegrates under the force of that wind. Don’t you think that some of those pieces of wall are going to be making their way in your general direction? And, if you were to somehow dodge all that potential decapitation-on-a-stick, don’t you think you’re going to be damaged just a little bit by that wind slamming into you at 767 miles per hour? Your internal organs would quickly become your external organs, a la the bug on a windshield. You ain’t surviving that, buddy.
Remember – that’s at Mach 1. Maverick was supposedly flying at more than Mach 10. Which means he was zooming along at upwards of 7,700 miles per hour, or more than two miles per second. When that plane cracks up, it’s disintegrating into a million little pieces, and so is Maverick.
To think that Maverick would survive intact is quite unbelievable. So we must suspend that disbelief in order to continue to participate in the show. And we do, for a while. One or two suspensions, we can get behind in order to stick with the story, especially if all the other parts (characters, dialogue, maybe a good sex scene) are worth sticking around for.
Unfortunately Maverick pushes the limits of our imaginations several times more than is feasible to expect. From the characters’ motivations to the fact that the US is launching a preemptive strike against an undeclared enemy to Maverick being able to steal a plane from a government facility to Maverick and Rooster escaping unharmed from their respective shoot-downs and then finding one another when they were miles apart, each piece stretches the bonds of credulity more and more.
Eventually those bonds break. We can suspend our disbelief. We cannot survive its wholesale disintegration.
9. THE STORY
Ultimately, a story is what the movie, or the book, or the song, is about. It’s what makes art art, beyond business or survival or reproduction. Top Gun had a story, a message: You must face your demons or they will destroy you. In doing so, they may still destroy you, or they will help you overcome whatever is threatening you.
Harry Potter had a story too: Despite your circumstances, you’re not that bad, and you’re not that good. You’ll need your friends around you to help defeat your enemies.
These stories are not the plot (see above). They are the reason for shooting the movie, or writing the book, or exhibiting the canvas. They are what the artist wants to say to the world. Even if the artist doesn’t know it. This is especially true if everyone who views the piece comes away with a different message. That’s when you know you’ve got a good story – it’s the reason for telling the story in the first place.
In one of my short stories, the message is even voiced blatantly by one of the characters: There is nothing proper about magic. But if you miss that one, you could still see that story as a conflict between old and new, between apprentice and master, or even between duty and freedom.
I don’t care what it is that you see. But I do care that you can take away some message, some story from the piece, that is separate from the plot.
Maverick had no story. What was the point of making this movie? What are we supposed to learn from this? Sure, you can argue that you don’t have to have a point. (My kids made this same argument after we watched Frozen.) Movies and music don’t have to have a point. But they do. The good ones even have multiple messages, based on who’s speaking and who’s listening. They are an inherent part of our storytelling species’ history, which means that we tend to seek out and value those experiences.
Since Maverick had no story at all other than a retelling of Top Gun (reckless, arrogant rule-breaker must break the rules to save the day), it missed. If you recall, under PLOT, I said that there was an opportunity for a good story. It would have centered around Maverick’s interactions with Iceman. When Ice tells him, “It’s time to let go,” that would have been a dead-on balls accurate perfect story to tell at this point in time. And I would be applauding Maverick rather than panning it.
Now – with all of that said – you’re probably going to think I’m about to say that Maverick shouldn’t have been made. That it was a waste of time and money. That it isn’t art. That it’s ridiculous, and nobody should go see it.
Unfortunately, if you bet like that, I’m taking your money. Because, in fact, while it may be terrible art, it is still art. And in the next installment, I’m going to tell you why I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.
to be continued