Blu-Ray Review: Top Gun 3D

'Breathtaking aerial dogfight photography that, if nothing else, justifies the film’s transformation from a military drama into a 3D thrill-ride.'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

“You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling” was always such a strange song to sing to someone you want to sleep with, in a tavern restroom or otherwise. The pounding Righteous Brothers ballad was a big hit before Top Gun, but in the years that followed the blockbuster’s 1986 release it has become indelibly linked to Tony Scott’s sweeping character study, and with the added popularity of Ghost’s “Unchained Melody,” made The Righteous Brothers stalwart owners of the top two slots of just about every oldies station’s list of their most-requested songs. And yet, it’s an accusatory song. It tells a woman that she’s frigid and flat-out begs her to have sex again. No wonder Maverick crashed and burned twice with that sucker. He’d have had better luck with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Revisiting Top Gun almost 30 years later, in 3D no less, reveals a lot of quirky things awry with Tony Scott’s classic romance. This rousing tearjerker about a hotshot pilot learning to settle for second place was arguably the opening salvo in a series of films – later typified by Michael Bay – that fetishize the U.S. military, in particular their ungodly expensive toys. The opening credits are a series of near-silhouetted military personnel, none of whom we ever meet, working on fighter jets and waving them off the runway of an aircraft carrier. Nothing happens, nobody of interest is introduced. The only thing Top Gun tells us, thanks largely to Tony Scott and Jeffrey Kimball’s iconic photography, is that all this stuff is badass, even (and perhaps even especially) when it’s not being used for to kill.

Indeed, Top Gun is not technically a war movie. There are two aerial combat sequences, always against an unnamed enemy over international waters, but they only bookend a film about fighter pilots bonding in peace time. And yet the attitude of war is omnipresent. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, in a star-making turn by Tom Cruise, sees his participation in the “Top Gun” flight school as an opportunity to prove himself, and fails miserably at the process, barely graduating – and not, as he intends, at the head of the class – and learning a very atypical lesson for a Hollywood studio product: that he may be talented, but he is not necessarily special, and must sacrifice aspects of his personality that endear him to audiences in order to succeed in a military unit.

In a decade otherwise populated by heroic ubermensch individualism and screeds against bureaucratic and government meddling in the lives of rebellious heroes (Die Hard, the Rambo movies and just about anything starring Steven Seagal), Top Gun’s message almost seems conformist. The true hero of Top Gun, if you think about it, is Lt. Tom “Iceman” Kasansky, played by a slightly dickish Val Kilmer. He’s presented as competition for Maverick’s big prize, being named “Top Gun” at NAS Miramar, and seems to bully the hero in locker room exchanges that, cinematically, almost mirror an anti-bullying “After School Special.” And yet Iceman’s problem with Maverick isn’t personal: Maverick’s singelminded quest for personal glory might be appreciated in a vacuum, but in a wartime context, when pilots depend on the discipline and support over their wingmen, Maverick is legitimately “dangerous.” If anything, he’s a selfish schmuck who willingly endangers his allies for no practical reason.

But that’s the attitude that makes Top Gun so fascinating. There’s a contrast here that makes the overt melodrama actually work on a complex level, and is directly related to the film’s practical function as military propaganda. (U.S. Navy recruiting booths were reportedly set up at some theaters playing Top Gun, with great success; enlistment numbers increased dramatically.) Top Gun is in some ways thematically allowed to glorify the military, because as a peace-time production the danger is minimal. Although a prominent character dies, and Maverick is extremely emotional affected by the loss, it’s the result of technical failure, not enemy fire. Top Gun is therefore free to indulge in volleyball scenes, sex scenes with beautiful civilian instructors, and consequence-free dog fights that make everything Maverick does seem badass, and thoroughly without negative consequence. The Navy is “cool.”

But while Top Gun wallows in its own pro-military crapulence visually, and functionally for most of the film, the actual story espouses that Maverick’s life isn’t as “cool” as he thinks it is. It’s about discipline and responsibility, and overcoming the individual self in order to be a part of a greater whole. It’s about ceasing to be a “Maverick” and settling for, or perhaps more accurately growing into, the role of a wingman. A support capacity instead of a heroic lead. Top Gun exerts most of its overpowering visual energy telling you that the Navy is cool, to the extent that the actual moral of the film isn’t glossed over, but supported. A film about conforming to a team dynamic in the 1980s would be a tough sell if it wasn’t simultaneously glorifying, at least visually, the individual need for speed. The appeal of the Navy is supported by the macho, self-involved mindset, but ultimately strengthened by using the badass cinema genre tropes in favor of a more measured coming-of-age saga.

I have mixed feelings about Top Gun, as you might have noticed. As a delivery system for military propaganda, it may be one of the most effective movies ever made. It’s also a clunky and hopelessly direct love story, and a shameless male-centric tearjerker along the lines of Dirty Dozen and Forrest Gump. But it’s beautifully filmed, charismatically acted and chock full of aerial cinematography that holds up almost 30 years later. Even in 3D.

Top Gun is, as near as I can figure, the oldest motion picture thus far to be converted to three-dimensions, and that comes with certain problems. Top Gun was clearly not intended for 3D consumption, as some of the shakier photography makes evident, and was also filmed in Tony Scott’s signature high-grain, smoke-filled room aesthetic. Watching Top Gun 3D often gives the impression of watching a three-dimensional image through a veil, and while that’s certainly a new experience, the difference between this 3D presentation and the ultra-crisp digitally-filmed 3D films being shot today might be off-putting to certain viewers.

But if you can put that aside, and the fact that some of the more matter-of-fact scenes of people talking in rooms have barely been converted (if at all), you’ll at least be treated to some breathtaking aerial dogfight photography that, if nothing else, justifies the film’s transformation from a military drama into a 3D thrill-ride. Top Gun certainly isn’t “improved” thanks to the 3D conversion, but it hasn’t been harmed in any way either.

The special features on the Blu-ray are plentiful but, it’s very important to note, contain no content that wasn’t already present in the first Blu-ray release of the film. If you buy Top Gun 3D, you are only buying it for the 3D presentation. The question of whether that’s worth the money falls entirely to you, and how much you love 3D. If you plan to watch Top Gun in 3D over and over again, as your “Go To” movie of choice, this is definitely worth a purchase. If, on the other hand, you only want to see Top Gun 3D for the novelty – as I suspect many if not most would be want to do – then catching the theatrical presentation should be enough. Or at least renting this Blu-ray instead of buying it. 

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.