Take My Breath Away!
I watched Top Gun the other night with my kids. I hadn't seen it in years. It's a remarkable film, first released in 1986, with a fantastic cast — Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan, among others — that only gets better with time.
Top Gun is also a dangerous movie. It aestheticizes [Ed. — published originally with the word anesthetizes] killing machines and invites us to get caught up in Cold War jingoism. It's a celebration of a kind of all-male, hungry, competitive, perhaps misogynistic world of warriors in the locker-room and the cockpit.
And it's a sexy film where beautiful men snarl and glare at each other in open displays of erotic desire — masquerading as a drive for dominance.
But more than anything else, it is a work of dazzling formal and poetic brilliance, a kind of study of filmic choreography. George Balanchine has nothing on Tony Scott's exhibition of counterpoint and organization as men and fighter planes maneuver on the deck of an aircraft carrier, eventually upswelling into a gravity defying, soaring supersonic pas de deux of jets in flight, all to the thrilling pulse of Kenny Loggins' soundtrack-defining song "Danger Zone."
The movie is an extended rock video, a dance-on-film put together from imagery of men in uniforms and planes moving impossibly through and around and astride the painted sky.
The timing and repetition reminded me of the opening scenes of what I had always thought of as the incomparably greater film Alien, the creation of Tony Scott's brother Ridley.
That movie opens with an alternative vision of man/machine ballet — the whir of technology as the ship's computer ("Mother") wakes her crew ahead of what turns out to be a deadly encounter with a beast who has come to turn everyone on the ship into vessels for alien offspring. [Ed. — Text originally identified the alien as female. See comments for discussion.]
Alien is blanketed in the dark silence of space. But it is also a composition of movement and sound, an unfolding dance between human beings, their machines and an alien with fertile and violent impulses. As in the case of Top Gun, the action happens in the hot, closed, confines of spaces that have been designed by distant governments-or-corporations for obscure ends that finally mean little to the people sweating it out on stage.
Take a look at Top Gun again. It will take your breath away!