There are a lot of handwringing articles making the rounds right now about why Awards Season movies like She Said, Triangle of Sadness, and Tár aren’t luring audiences to theaters. Of course, this annual ritual is always followed by complaints from “The Fans” that the Oscars and other highfalutin institutions don’t nominate movies that people have actually seen. Personally, I’m glad they don’t. Given that most casual audiences only show up for a few scattered Disney acquisitions, talking CG-animal comedies, and disposable opening-weekend horrors throughout the year, Awards Season would be an absolute bore if it were driven by box office sales. This is the one time of year where smaller, stranger, quieter films get a little room to breathe in the public discourse outside the otherwise constant cacophony of jump scares, superhero battles, and Lyle, Lyle Crocodile’s bathtub croonings. Taking that away to boost an awards ceremony’s TV ratings would be anti-Art, if not outright evil. Case in point: the top-grossing film of the year to date—and the only Actual Movie of the year in wider audience’s minds—is the decades-late nostalgia stoker Top Gun: Maverick, a movie that it is, to put it as generously as possible, an absurdly expensive pile of ice-cold dogshit.
A lot of people will tell you that the only way to truly soak in the majesty of Top Gun: Maverick was to experience it in its large-screen format at your local multiplex’s imitation IMAX. Personally, I feel like I watched it the way it was meant to be seen: scaled down to the back of a plane-seat headrest on a late-night flight. While Maverick‘s biggest fans ooh’d & ahh’d at the Navy’s high-speed fighter jets roaring in perfectly calibrated digital clarity, I got the full 4D experience, with a real-life airplane engine providing aural background texture and the dull fear of a tragic mid-flight crash pumping up my adrenaline levels. Even in my personal one-man rumble seat theatre in the sky, I despised the film, increasingly growing angry at audiences’ lack of appetite for the much tastier delicacies that were left to rot in empty theaters this year. Top Gun: Maverick is a rusty carnival ride through a cobwebbed Hall of Memories – an algorithmic simulation of cinema. Making Maverick after it was already pre-parodied in MacGruber is exactly as embarrassing as making a by-the-numbers musician biopic after Walk Hard. It might even be a worse offense, considering how much more money was wasted on its $170mil production than smaller projects like Bohemian Rhapsody or Stardust (and for a much more insidious political purpose). Either way, it was already perfectly, ruthlessly mocked years before release. It’s nothing; it’s a joke; it’s the most popular movie of 2022 (at least until the next bloated-budget blockbuster sequel down the line, Avatar: The Way of Water, is given time to catch up).
Martin Scorsese has become a Gen-Z punching bag for an off-hand comment he made comparing modern superhero blockbusters to amusement park rides, and I think he’s only been proven right in the years since. In this dual Navy recruitment tool and elaborate vanity project, Tom Cruise’s renegade fighter pilot is a real-world superhero, with every other character marveling that “He’s the fastest man alive” in slack-jawed awe as he Supermans his way through the sky. He looks ghoulish in close-up as the force of his supernatural speed yanks his skin to the back of his skull, but we’re meant to fawn over his eternal good looks & boyish charm. Since he has no grey hair and total control over the flattering angles he’s filmed from, we see no signs of his decades of aging since the original Top Gun, other than that he texts with full punctuation. It’s like revisiting a Disney park attraction every few decades; the animatronic hosts behind the red ropes look mostly the same as they did your last visit, except a little haggard from years of repeating the same few robotic maneuvers. And the wonders he’s there to guide you through only appear smaller & sadder as you grow older: a simulated ride in an airfighter’s cockpit; a technical showcase of your local multiplex’s outdated sound system; a soullessly reenacted clip from a movie you used to like, scored with just as many notes of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” to stoke the memory before moving on to the next empty, sad display. Maverick is the abandoned wing of the amusement park that the owners didn’t bother to update, just a few months away from being replaced by something new & worse.
I could understand skepticism that watching Maverick on an uncomfortable airplane flight—eyes occasionally drawn to the private screening of That Thing You Do! on the headrest next to mine—is sufficient enough of an attempt at genuine appreciation. As a counterargument, I’d like to report that I watched the original 1986 Top Gun on my connection flight that same night, and I loved it. I remember being bored by Top Gun‘s rah-rah militarism on my first watch decades ago, so maybe it only clicked with me this go-round in comparison to its algorithmic snoozer of a sequel. Either way, it’s undeniable that it looks better than its 2022 counterpart. Tony Scott’s high-style approach to the material makes for gorgeous, horned-up pop art that only could have been produced in the MTV era. In Maverick, Tom Cruise frequently repeats the mantra “Don’t think, just do” as an overt suggestion to the audience that we shut off our brains and enjoy the ride. In contrast, Tony Scott shuts our brains off for us, packing the screen with so many wordless, sweaty music video montages that the film somehow plays more like a wet dream than a military recruitment ad. Both films have visible hard-ons for the tools of US imperialist warfare, but only the original conveys the sexiness of the machinery and the meatheads who operate it in a genuinely swoonworthy way. All of the color, flavor, and texture of that MTV reverie are drained from the sequel to the point where all that’s left is the machinery itself – none more important than the T-800 hyperalloy endoskeleton just under the surface of Cruise’s synthetic skin.
It’s okay that Top Gun: Maverick exists. Something has to sell enough popcorn & sodas to keep movie theaters afloat. What’s chafing me is the argument that it needs to be formally recognized as one of the best movies of the year in order to keep the Oscars’ TV ratings viable. This movie belongs on the showroom floor of a Best Buy, advertising overpriced 4K TVs, not parading across an awards stage or printed on a critical publication’s Best of the Year list. It’s not even a movie, really. It’s an echo of a movie, an expensive version of Fathom Events re-running choppy digital streams of E.T. & The Goonies to make up for the industrial slow-down of pandemic-era #content. The next time you hear someone complain that “They don’t make good movies anymore,” keep in mind that the only movies they’ve watched this year were a couple Spider-Man crossover sequels and this piece of shit. Otherwise, they just halfway listened to a few Netflix Originals in the background while thumbing around on their phones. There’s no need for critical institutions to cater to that audience; they’ve already spent all the money they’re going to spend at the carnival.