Spoiler alert: This review is best read after seeing the film or knowing that it contains a limited number of spoilers, though I have tried to make these structural rather than plot spoilers.
It is entirely possible to watch Top Gun Maverick without engaging your brain. The plot can stand alone and there is plenty of action, loud bangs, shoot-em-ups and feisty aircraft. However, if you want to look a bit deeper at this film, I think it stands up to closer examination. It is worth recognising a surprisingly well crafted and uplifting film. Here's why I think it's so powerful.
I wouldn't usually start a film review with a piece of marketing or sociological categorisation. However, trust me you'll miss out on some of this film's power if you haven't been introduced to Generation Jones.
Many will be familiar with the post war Baby Boomer generation and the subsequent general x, y, z and of course, the millennials.
Many social scientists now recognise these current bandings misplace as either boomers or gen x those born between roughly 1953 and 1966, these are Generation Jones.
Also known as the gatekeeper or transition generation, these are old enough to have parents who were in or have direct knowledge of World War II. However, they won't usually have served in the services themselves.
The most famous self-identifying member of Generation Jones is perhaps Barak Obama, but it also includes many of the generation that made and starred in this film.
Generation Jones is the last generation accepted as being born in an analogue world, a less connected, less digital and some would say less polarised and divided world.
They are a generation who understand the fragility of freedom and grew up during the cold war, living with the dual threats of nuclear war and the AIDS crisis during their formative years. They are uniquely placed to have seen the development of gender and identity politics while remembering a time before them. Similarly they have been described as the last generation to create and define their own identity through the music of the late 70's and 80s. Through the deliberate and defined sub-cultures of punk, goth, electro-pop and new wave, this is a generation bridging the digital, technological and cultural generation gaps.
Generation Jones are the first generation in man years to have handed on a less favourable world to their children and demographically are most likely to say we've taken mis-steps and lost our way in the new digital world.
Interestingly, all those teenagers queuing for Star wars in 1977 are firmly in Generation Jones territory.
We forget how ground breaking Star Wars was in 1977 as indeed was Top Gun in the 1980s.
Today CGI and visual effects are taken for granted. However, in both Star Wars and Top Gun, they were truly jaw droppingly original.
Those cinematic experiences left deep marks on the spirit of many of those who saw it. For the first time, here was a generation who saw what was possible and had the opportunity, social change and determination to achieve it.
Wind forward forty years and put that generation in a cinema that recaptures that promise, acknowledges both the progress made since then and observes where we (for I am one of them) might walk a different path and you have a good film. Throw in some old friends made when we were all young, reflect on the passage of time and complexities of friendship, love and loss and you have the potential for a great film.
Add the magical original score of Harold Faltermayer with the sympathetic magic of Hans Zimmer, truly immersive cinematography and some of the most spectacular flying you'll ever have seen and you've got Top Gun: Maverick.
I waited for the start of the film with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. I wanted it to be good but the rule of sequels (sequels are terrible) would tend to put the odds against it being much more than a lazy money spinner. I needn't have worried.
in a cleverly crafted and very well executed nod to the past (and reassurance to many of the audience), the first thing you see is - nothing. But oh, do you hear it.
Two deep resonating bells of bass notes and I was already smiling. If you want to sum up and bottle menacing anticipation its in those two notes. Follow it with nineteen notes played on electric guitar that embody a generation (you're probably hearing them now) then segue into Danger Zone and I knew I was in safe hands and somewhere in 1986, From that point I could relax, - deftly done.
There are a couple of issues for those who were shaped by this film's original version. The elephant in the room is - where is Kelly McGillis? (sorry Kelly far from an elephant). The love interest from the first film, over which Berlin sang so much is conspicuous by her absence as is any explanation for that omission. It doesn't spoil the plot but it's an unusually unnecessary gap.
The second is that throw back to Star Wars. In Top Gun, the enemy were clearly the Russians, in less black and white times Maverick sees a non-specific rogue state developing capability that could make them a nuclear threat. As plots go it's ok if a bit stock.
In Top Gun Maverick the attacking aircraft have to contend with narrow corridors covered by deadly air defences which must be navigated with pinpoint precision at high speed and whilst under enemy fire. When arriving at the target, they will find a ray shielded exhaust port no more than 2m across which has to be hit as a bullseye. Is it just me or is that Luke Skywalkers approach to the death star?
Add to that Maverick's advice of 'just do don't think, just do' and we're perilously close to 'use the force Luke'. There are a couple of similar nods to Star Wars I spotted and I chose to look on them as an homage to something that inspired as many would-be pilots as any other film before Top Gun in 1986.
Then there are two characters that drive the emotional and nostalgic arcs of the film in equal measure.
Anthony Edwards character 'Goose' who died part way through Top Gun provides a believable and human backstory for character development in this sequel. Special mention for whoever cast Miles Teller as Lt. Bradley Bradshaw.
Tom Cruise has ample opportunity to brood reflectively, show that his character is more than just a fly-box and ultimately offers the chance for a degree of redemption. I'll leave you to see if that arises, but it feeds a real intensity in a more rounded and reflective Maverick.
It's cleverly done with much left to the viewer to fill in the gaps, Cruise uses a show don't tell acting style and for me it worked a treat. If you hadn't seen the original and didn't know the backstory it would still work. but if you have watched the original this along with clever use of original Top Gun stills makes this a believable reflection for those of us who have dealt with the loss of family or friends.
Then the genuinely touching addition, Val Kilmer reprising his role as Iceman.
In a case of art reflecting life, Kilmer appeared with the assistance of considerable CGI and artificial intelligence. Having battled and held off throat cancer, Kilmer has been cancer free for four years. However, at a great cost including two tracheotomies. The plot explains and wraps up the competitive relationship between Iceman and Maverick with real humour and sensitivity. The mirroring of life and art in these interactions were certainly emotional and I for one am glad the scenes we have were captured.
So what of my rule of sequels? Well, I've had to adapt it slightly. It now reads 'Sequels are terrible except when they're great.'
A Scottish friend of mine with a more than passing interest in Tom Cruise announced that in her view the sequel was better than the original. I'm genuinely undecided about that, but it's certainly as good. Do you have to have seen the first film - well no, but it really helps and you'd get more out of it if you do.
Is it a great piece of art? Well, its a piece of good art and a great bit of acting from all concerned. Tom Cruise is particularly good conveying a great deal through an unusually constrained (for him) acting style. Technically it's outstanding in its cinematography and score with a real eye for progressing a strong emotional arc.
As to how I felt when I watched it, around two thirds of the way through I felt positively fossilised. At its conclusion, I felt ... young. A very well judged piece of cinema.
It didn't entirely surprise me that the plane of choice for literally flying off into the sunset was anything but modern. A typically generation Jones snubbing of the inexorable march of technology. If you haven't seen this film yet, I'd highly recommend it and you can take from it what you wish. I took many things from it, one being I'm content with being less reliant on the tech, less always connected and quite happy to remain in a part analogue world when I chose to be.
Maybe people with that mentality are an endangered species and we're going extinct. - Maybe, but not today.