Release Date(s)2022 (October 31, 2022)
Studio(s)Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films/Skydance Media (Paramount Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: C+
It’s been genuinely fascinating to watch film critics grapple with the box office phenomenon that is Top Gun: Maverick over the past several months. Time and again, reviewers have fallen over themselves to ensure that you know they don’t approve of Scientology, Tom Cruise’s personal choices, American imperialism, or the notion of Hollywood filmmaking as military-industrial propaganda. Others have taken pains to highlight the original film’s “obvious homo-erotic overtones” (and you can almost hear the smirk they wore while typing those words). In each case, the reviewer has revealed more about themselves than the actual film in question. And in each case, they’ve seemed loath to acknowledge the most obvious aspect of Top Gun: Maverick: This is a nearly perfect film.
Now, let’s be clear… Maverick certainly does not belong in the same category as Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Seven Samurai. This is not high culture, it’s pop culture. But Top Gun: Maverick is as perfectly-engineered a piece of pop culture entertainment as Hollywood has ever produced. This is a pure cinema experience—an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster ride that’s wildly entertaining. For whatever else one might be tempted to see in this film for personal or political reasons, Maverick—at its heart—is a love letter to aviation, in particular a kind of aviation that’s fast becoming obsolete, even as the dream of flight remains every bit as potent today as it was when human beings first looked up at the sky.
Part of this film’s appeal is the sheer simplicity of its story. Thirty-six years after finishing second in his Top Gun class, and becoming the only American pilot to down three “enemy” aircraft in combat since the Vietnam War, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is now the oldest and most decorated captain in the United States Navy. While working as a test pilot in Mohave, California, pushing the Navy’s experimental Darkstar scramjet to the edge of the envelope, Maverick learns that Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) has cancelled the program because it hasn’t yet achieved Mach 10—an obvious excuse to expropriate its funds for Cain’s preferred unmanned drones. Hoping to save the jobs of his team members, Maverick flies the last Darkstar test anyway. But rather than being grounded for disobeying orders, Maverick is stunned to learn that he’s been called back to Top Gun instead.
It seems the same old “enemy” is about to begin enriching uranium in violation of international treaty, and their underground facility is so well fortified that the Navy’s most advanced fighters can’t attack it. So the best Top Gun graduates available have been recalled for a top-secret mission to destroy it using older F-18s, and the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer)—wants Maverick to teach them how to do it. But Iceman isn’t the only blast from the past that Maverick encounters while back at NAS North Island; his old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) is there too, so it’s not long before their on-again, off-again relationship rekindles. Things become more complicated still when Maverick learns that one of the pilots he’s meant to train is a young lieutenant named Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his best friend and former F-14 RIO “Goose,” who died years earlier in a training accident while Maverick was at the controls. And that’s not the only reason Rooster has a chip on his shoulder.
Aviation movies are as old as cinema itself; consider that William A. Wellman’s Wings was the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929. Many examples have followed it… The Battle of Britain, Twelve O’Clock High, The Memphis Belle, The Dam Busters, Midway, The Right Stuff, The Final Countdown, Firefox, Iron Eagle, Flight of the Intruder, Pearl Harbor, and of course, the original Top Gun (reviewed here in 4K at The Bits). But none have advanced the technology of aviation cinematography as far or as effectively as Top Gun: Maverick. While Tony Scott’s 1986 film was ground-breaking for its day, using actual Navy pilots and F-14s, the actors were always firmly on the ground, filmed in simulated cockpits with tight framing. But this time, the actors are actually flying in real Navy F-18s, with 6K footage captured digitally in-cockpit. This is made possible because they’re riding in the rear position of dual-seat aircraft, with both the pilot and actor wearing identical helmets. Cameras are positioned behind the pilot pointing forward, while the actor is shot from the front looking aft—when all the footage is intercut, it appears as if the actor is flying the aircraft. The result is nothing short of breathtaking, an immersive visual experience that cast member Lewis Pullman (“Bob”) describes as “like being strapped onto a dragon.”
Top Gun: Maverick is also a remarkably effective sequel, one that actually manages to surpass the original film. Top Gun has long been regarded as an iconic example of 1980s Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, for both better and worse. But here, director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) references Tony Scott’s characteristic style while modernizing it, crafting an actioner that takes full advantage of 80s nostalgia while managing to feel contemporary as well. And while the story is pure formula, it wholeheartedly embraces universal human values. It affirms the notion of giving everything for something worth believing in, of not resting on past achievements but continually pushing and testing oneself, of the satisfaction of gaining skills, wisdom, and perspective through hard effort. It reminds us that time and (often painful) experience are life’s greatest teachers. But above all else, it delivers honest, well-earned emotions and a satisfying ending, twisting and turning just enough along the way to keep things interesting.
Tom Cruise remains as ageless as ever in this film, giving his usual 110% to the production. Val Kilmer reprises his role with an affecting performance of very few words. (Those he does speak are his own, though his voice—damaged after years of treatment for throat cancer—has been digitally enhanced for clarity). Miles Tellar is terrific, going toe-to-toe with Cruise while honoring Anthony Edwards’ work before him. (Edwards appears briefly in photos and flashback footage, as do Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan). The supporting cast delivers solid performances as well, including Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Bashir Salahuddin, Glen Powell, and Monica Barbaro. And Jennifer Connelly is perfectly charming as Penny Benjamin, a character that—while new on screen—was named-checked twice in the 1986 film. Add to all this a score that features the work of Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, and Lady Gaga, and the result is pure summer moviegoing entertainment—just the thing to draw audiences back into theaters after two years of COVID lockdowns.
Better still, as it appears on physical 4K from Paramount Pictures, Top Gun: Maverick is the Ultra HD reference disc of the year. As noted earlier, the film was captured in 6K resolution by cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, Tron: Legacy) with a camera team that includes CineJet personnel, at least one operator who worked on the original film, and even members of the cast. It was finished as a full native 4K Digital Intermediate in a variable aspect ratio that shifts from 2.39 to 1.90 for IMAX presentations. Paramount’s 4K release preserves that variable ratio, ensuring the best possible picture for those with large displays. That image clarity is exceptional, with magnificent fine detail and texturing—the word astonishing seems wholly inadequate to describe the home experience of this film. If you’ve enjoyed Maverick via 4K steaming these past few months, you’ll find your jaw hitting the hard deck thanks to the physical disc’s far less compressed and more dimensional image. And the high dynamic range grading lends every frame a bold, vibrant immediacy that puts you right “in the box” pulling Gs with these pilots. (Both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included.) Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive 4K presentation on disc.
Primary audio is offered in an equally good English Dolby Atmos mix, an effective home cinema port of the theatrical audio experience. The soundstage is big, wide, and highly atmospheric, with crystal clear dialogue, smooth and active panning, effortless lift in the height channels during dogfight sequences, and firmly muscular bass. The dynamic range is impressive as the mix shifts instantly from the contained tones of F-18 cockpits—complete with com chatter and the sound of pilots breathing via their oxygen masks—to the thunderous roar of twin GE turbofans howling at full afterburner during air combat exteriors. Fighters swirl and dive all around the listener, accompanied by The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” early in the film and the sizzle of surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles later on. Additional sound mixes on the disc include English Audio Description and Czech, Spanish, Latin Spanish, French Canadian, Italian, Hungarian, and Polish 5.1 Dolby Digital, along with optional subtitles in English, English for the Dead and Hard of Hearing, Cantonese, Czech, Spanish, Latin Spanish, French Canadian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Finnish, Swedish, and Thai.
Paramount’s wide Ultra HD release features the film in 4K only—no Blu-ray copy is included in the package (that version is available separately). You do however get a Digital Copy code on a paper insert. And the 4K disc does include a few special features, as follows:
- Cleared for Take Off (HD – 9:15)
- Breaking New Ground – Filming Top Gun: Maverick (HD – 7:56)
- A Love Letter to Aviation (HD – 4:48)
- Forging the Darkstar (HD – 7:31)
- Masterclass with Tom Cruise: Cannes Film Festival (HD – 49:04)
- Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” Music Video (HD – 3:52)
- OneRepublic’s “I Ain’t Worried” Music Video (HD – 2:37)
The actual behind-the-scenes content is solid. You get to hear briefly from all the key members of the cast and crew, you get to see how the aerial footage was captured, and you get a glimpse of the rigorous training regimen Cruise created for the actors. You also get an interesting look at the creation of the Darkstar scramjet mock-up, which was actually designed and built by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works for the film. The problem here is simply that you want so more of this content than you actually get. What’s missing is a truly in-depth, fly-on-the-wall documentary experience that might have illuminated the day-to-day effort involved in making this film. Also missing is an audio commentary with Cruise and Kosinski, who could have talked about what’s real in each scene (most of what you see) and what’s VFX. No trailers are included here either, which is a shame. You do at least get a 50-minute presentation in which Cruise is interviewed before a live audience at the Cannes Film Festival, but this is really about his career as a whole and not this film. Rounding out the disc-based extras are music videos for a pair of tracks, one that accompanies the “dogfight football” sequence and the other than closes the film.
Note that if you redeem the Digital code, you also get access to an additional feature via desktop and mobile devices (depending on the Digital service):
- James Corden’s Top Gun Training with Tom Cruise – Extended Edition (HD – 26:39)
A much shorter version of this was featured on The Late Late Show with James Corden. It’s certainly entertaining, so while it doesn’t make or break these extras, it’s nice to have. But an audio commentary is something this film really deserves, and one would hope that a future release might include it.
When all is said and done, Top Gun: Maverick remains everything you’d want from a sequel to Tony Scott’s original film, a brava blockbuster experience that’s trickier than a 4G inverted dive, has spawned a whole new genre of YouTube channels (ex-fighter pilots exhaustively analyzing the film), and will be very hard to surpass in the years to come for sheer cinematic thrills and immersiveness. The disc’s glossy special features not withstanding, Top Gun: Maverick is also a demo-worthy 4K Ultra HD experience that is absolutely not to be missed.
- Bill Hunt