Top Gun‘s legacy sequel of 36 years owes its story and existence to a great many things; not just the original. It’s “Mission: Impossible” and Heartbreak Ridge (1986) with fighter jets and erotica – your easy tagline for Maverick. See it in IMAX, then see it again. It deserves it, and so do your local theaters.
But an unexpected feeling came to me as I sat there in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum taking in the film in all its patriotic splendor. This movie is also Star Wars (1977). Not just in plot, but also very specifically in feeling and impact.
As has been observed, the entire mission for which the recruits are training is a beat-for-beat recreation of the Battle of Yavin. The clock is ticking to the enemy’s nuclear capability, which prompts a desperate mission by a squadron of pilots to fly small, short-range aircraft dangerously low in small formation teams through narrow terrain, avoid anti-air fire from surface turrets, use laser technology to pinpoint a precise target barely a couple meters wide, launch a missile into the same opening, and at that attack speed pull out in time. The mission is laid out in a visual diagram before a classroom of pilots who express doubts as to its possibility. One of the young pilots (the one who makes the kill shot), having been held back by a father figure from his dream to become a fighter pilot like his long dead father, thinks too hard and has to learn to let go and trust his instincts. He has a contentious and distrusting relationship with another cocky hotshot with a loyalty problem, who sits out the entire battle until coming out of nowhere to make a crucial save at the very end.
Indeed, the similarities to Star Wars do not end there. Both films were directed by relative newcomers to cinema, better known for their technological skills than for the films they made, and who had years before directed an eccentric science fiction film (respectively THX-1138 (1971) by George Lucas and Oblivion (2013) by Joseph Kozinski) that was not widely seen. Both films spent years in development hell before releasing to an unexpected box office smash success. Both films released over Memorial Day weekend in an era where the United States was in a state of hyper-inflationary pain as well as demoralizing malaise in the aftermath of a disastrous military withdrawal ending a long overseas war the country largely believed lost, and during the miserable presidency of a helpless man who was elected largely because the public thought he was a lot nicer than the last* guy.
But Top Gun: Maverick does not merely copy Star Wars. It gives something back to it. What it gives back is recognition and respect, not just for the power Star Wars immediately had on audiences everywhere and for generations to come, but also for what had inspired its creation in the first place.
The history of cinema is replete with creative give-and-take influences. One of the key creative figures behind Japan’s cultural rebound after World War II was Akira Kurosawa, who created the samurai drama and adventure (or jidaigeki) genre in film by taking inspiration from American westerns, specifically by John Ford and Howard Hawks. His films Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) were so much like westerns in style, that they in turn influenced the western genre with films like The Magnificent Seven (1960), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966).
It would be too simplistic to say that these films merely copied each other. When a film – especially a good one – authentically displays one of its influences, it can be a sign of respect and recognition of artistic origins. Both genres of film – Samurai and Western – benefited from the influence of the other, and they grew together because of input from the other.
Star Wars itself came from Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress (1958). There’s a long list of notable influences, but George Lucas was just as inspired not only by the republic serials (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Forbidden Planet), but also the aerial drama and epic war films he grew up watching. Films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and – most directly – The Dam Busters (1955) and 633 Squadron (1964) are, among others, as much the creative ancestors of Star Wars as anything else. Star Wars does not merely copy them. It paid tribute to them. If you had seen any of those films before 1977, you’d have recognized their influence upon Star Wars. If you hadn’t, you would be immediately attracted to that type of movie.
Unfortunately, most of the films that claimed to be inspired by Star Wars were junk science fiction or wizard fantasy films that were either not very good, or indicative of a phase. Why did James Bond go into space in 1979 for Moonraker? Because Star Wars came out in 1977 and made more money than The Spy Who Loved Me. But when was the last time a non-sci-fi/fantasy film directly took something from Star Wars in earnest? When was the last time we saw a film – any film – that truly demonstrated not only that it understood Star Wars, but appreciated where it came from and would in turn imprint its creative DNA upon future updates.
Enter Top Gun: Maverick, which, though a sequel to the most famous aerial drama of the 1980s, feels like a new type of blockbuster in the age of Marvel. The 2022 sequel is an air combat mission thriller that directly recalls and updates the genre of film that influenced Star Wars by using the story beats of Star Wars itself. Despite all of the parallels mentioned above, it is the successor to 633 Squadron, The Dam Busters, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. The F-18s almost look and sound like snub spaceships, despite being not only real but dinosaur aircraft compared to the enemy’s “fifth generation fighters,” and the story takes place in the modern world where drones threaten to displace human pilots and where a nuclear Iran is the central unspoken threat. The reality of the film is even further demonstrated by the reality of the filmmaking, where actors flew these planes for real, and the camera systems latched onto them in real time.
Star Wars influenced the imaginations of billions of people, but there’s an argument that it resulted in the creative culture of Hollywood eventually grinding to a halt. Today nearly everything is a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, and a studio franchise project, designed and approved by committee, filtered by politically correct marketing departments, and functioning like installments of television for the big screen. Star Wars the film did not create this, but the subsequent franchising (and success thereof) certainly did. It’s much worse now that the white slavers of Disney are the creative driving force instead of George Lucas. And the funniest modern irony to all of this is the fact that Top Gun: Maverick is perhaps the greatest Star Wars movie since the original trilogy.
Hopefully, the success of Top Gun: Maverick will inspire more aerial dramas of merit. And if we’re lucky, a future science fiction film will give back to it the respect and recognition that it has now given back to Star Wars. Only time will tell.
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