Take My Breath Away – Top Gun (1986) 4K Ultra HD

The biggest blockbuster hit of 1986 and one of the most (if not the most) iconic films from that decade, Top Gun has remained enduringly popular over time – enough so that a sequel released 36 years later once again blew the roof off the theatrical box office. Is it actually a good movie, though? That debate has raged for decades.

During my younger years as a pretentious film student, and well into my time as a budding critic, it was quite fashionable among my peers to dismiss Top Gun as a dumb popcorn movie, a very expensive and over-long music video, and a shameless Navy recruitment commercial. I don’t think I ever hated the film like some of them claimed to, but I definitely never took it seriously as art either. The funny thing is, watching it again for the first time in ages, although I can fully recognize and agree to some extent with all those complaints, the very second the Harold Faltermeyer synth score kicks in over the opening credits, I can’t deny that my blood starts pumping. Faults be damned, Top Gun is awesome! It always was.

Top Gun (1986) - F14 Tomcat
Title:Top Gun
Year of Release: 1986
Director: Tony Scott
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Blu-ray 3D
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Jester, Viper, Merlin… Their callsigns are iconic. (I’m going to try really hard not to overuse that word.) Not only was Top Gun a smash hit in theaters, the film went on to saturate all the cable movie channels for years afterward and became a top seller on home video. At a time when most movies on VHS were priced at $80 or higher and sold directly to video rental chains, Paramount was one of the first of the major studios to experiment with sell-through pricing, putting its tapes right into consumer hands at less than a third of that cost. The ploy was a big success, and Top Gun was an early title to benefit from it. In the mid-1980s Top Gun was everywhere, and it never really went away. The title has been a staple of every video format to follow, including DVD, Blu-ray, and now 4K. It was even re-released to IMAX theaters in 2013 with a 3D conversion that pulled in a few million extra dollars.

I can’t argue against the criticisms of the film having a flimsy plot. There’s really nothing to it. Cocky fighter pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) out-flies all the competition at the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, looks cool riding a motorcycle, plays beach volleyball with his alpha-male buddies, and karaokes “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in a bar to seduce his smokeshow flight instructor (Kelly McGillis). Despite being thrown off his game after a tragic accident (that was definitely not his fault), Mav eventually rallies and gets his mojo back to save the day in a vaguely-defined conflict over the Indian Ocean. That about sums up the whole thing.

To be sure, this is a lot of macho, jingoistic nonsense. The story points are laid out pretty simply and without much nuance. Director Tony Scott, who’d been an innovator in flashy TV commercials during the 1970s and early ’80s, unapologetically favors style over substance, and his fetishism of sweaty, shirtless men has been the subject of much ridicule and parody. Quentin Tarantino has an amusing fan theory about the whole movie secretly being a subversive gay love story, that he delivered as a monologue in the (otherwise forgettable) 1994 indie rom-com Sleep with Me.

Taken strictly at face value, the movie is kind of ridiculous. That being acknowledged, just about everything about it simply works. Tom Cruise was at the peak of his young magnetism and delivers it full-force. A promising star on the rise in films like The Outsiders and Risky Business, this is the movie that made him a certified superstar and a box office powerhouse. Backing him up is a great pool of talent including Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Michael Ironside, Tom Skerritt, and Meg Ryan. Future Oscar winner Tim Robbins even has a minor role as one of the lesser-seen pilots.

Tony Scott stylizes the hell out of the picture. The guy knew how to make his actors look good, and the hardware looks even better. Almost every shot could belong in a glossy magazine spread. The Faltermeyer score defies you to resist humming its themes, and the pop songs on the soundtrack are perfectly integrated. The aerial sequences are still pretty astounding even three decades on. Even if, as has frequently been pointed out, they have little sense of spacial geography or continuity, it’s hard to give a damn about that when the action scenes are exciting as hell.

Top Gun may be a popcorn movie, but it’s a fantastic popcorn movie, brilliantly executed.

Top Gun (1986) - The Cast

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

For such a popular movie, Top Gun has had a very messy history on home video, especially in the high-def era. Although it scored some positive reviews at the time, the first Blu-ray release from 2008 was plagued by Digital Noise Reduction and edge enhancement. Paramount later remastered the film for a 3D conversion in 2013 – but only for the 3D version. The regular 2D Blu-ray edition in the case was a copy of the 2008 disc.

The studio finally delivered a proper remaster of the original 2D version in 2020 on both Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD. When you buy the 4K package on physical media, both discs in the case come from the same updated master. I’m not sure that I’m entirely sold on it either, but it certainly looks better than the old disc.

Part of the problem is that Top Gun is an extremely grainy film. Tony Scott and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball shot it in the Super 35 format, which was known for being very grainy on film stocks available at the time. Additionally, the movie is highly stylized with many heavy color filters that reduced light input through the lens. That led to a not just grainy but also rather soft image. The previous video transfer attempted to “fix” that by wiping away the grain with DNR and then sharpening the picture with edge enhancement, ending up with an over-processed mess.

The 4K Ultra HD, thankfully, lays off the DNR and lets the grain run rampant. I won’t say that no grain management happened here (given Paramount’s extremely uneven track record in recent years, one can’t help being skeptical), but if any did it’s not noticeable. The opening credits, which are further burdened by being optical composites, are positively swarming with the stuff. Frankly, much of the rest of the movie is too. Somehow, Scott makes the heavy grain work as part of a cohesive style. I’m pleased to finally see that aspect unmolested.

I struggled to get a good screenshot for the following comparison. I’m not yet equipped to take captures from 4K or HDR. The new 1080p Blu-ray, while sharing the same source master, has encoding issues and struggles to resolve film grain, which sometimes comes out looking patchy and blocky (though definitely not as much as the old disc). At the very least, you should be able to see a big difference in the lack of edge halos here. The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray handles the grain better.

Top Gun Comparison 1 - 2008 Blu-rayTop Gun Comparison 1 - 2020 Blu-ray

Where I might take some issues are with the new color and HDR grades. Top Gun is another disc that looks way too bright and washed-out at my projector’s normal calibrated settings. I swear this isn’t really all that common a problem, but I seem to be running into it with stuff I’ve watched recently (see: Batman and Predator 2). The Navy dress uniforms are blindingly white with clipped details. I was able to counter this problem by turning down the projector’s tone-mapping setting, which brought the contrast down to more reasonable levels, but doing so also basically eliminated any pretense of the transfer being “HDR.” At the lower setting, the picture has no highlights that extend beyond the SDR range.

Worrying that this was an equipment problem with my projector’s handling of HDR, I then put in the remastered 1080p SDR Blu-ray, only to find that the brightness looks pushed there too. On top of that, much of the movie has a yellowish tint. I believe these were intentional decisions in the color grading process, ones that I don’t necessarily agree with. For all its other faults, I prefer the colors and contrast on the older disc.

Top Gun Comparison 2 - 2008 Blu-rayTop Gun Comparison 2 - 2020 Blu-ray

As mentioned, the photography has always been fairly soft. I doubt it ever had anything approaching a 4K level of detail. Honestly, it barely has 2K worth of detail. Nonetheless, the lack of noticeable DNR helps restore whatever got smeared away from the 2.40:1 image before. The picture is sharp and clear enough to make out every individual hair in Tom Cruise’s unibrow. (Why didn’t the makeup and hair stylist people fix that for him, anyway?)

Both the Ultra HD and the remastered Blu-ray also offer a brand new Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s an absolute blast with swooshing jets, missiles, and gunfire zipping around the room from every direction, including overhead. The Harold Faltermeyer synth score is spread across a broad soundstage. In general, the mix has decent dynamics, with a few moderate bass hits during explosions. However, jet afterburners and sonic booms sound weak. In comparison, the DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track on the old Blu-ray (not included here) has more and deeper bass, and those afterburners rumble in a more satisfying manner.

Bonus features on the UHD disc itself are limited to an old audio commentary, a new 6-minute featurette promoting the sequel, and a 30-minute retrospective lookback. The rest of the supplements are on the standard Blu-ray, and most (if not all) of them appear to be recycled from older DVD and Blu-ray editions. These include a 2.5-hour making-of documentary, a half-hour piece on the real Top Gun school, storyboards, four music videos, and some vintage material from the original 1986 press kit.

Top Gun (1986) 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray


Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

5 thoughts on “Take My Breath Away – Top Gun (1986) 4K Ultra HD

  1. Yikes. The new transfer in the second capture comparison looks less like a different color grade and more like a crappy Instagram sepia filter. I appreciate them for choosing to dial back the dnr and leaving more film grain.


  2. I enjoy Top Gun, but never like the masses did. Seeing it now, I find Maverick to be an unlikeable prick and tend to side with Ice Man when he gives Maverick a hard time. I did find him much more redeemable in the sequel though. I’m kind of wanting to watch the 3D version now as I seem to remember it having a pretty strong conversion.


    1. I will just point out that it is explicitly the plot of the film that Maverick is a cocky prick who gets the wind knocked out of him and has to learn some humility. That’s the whole story arc.

      Iceman is validated at the end as the better aviator and wins the trophy (though it should also be said that Goose’s death is entirely Ice’s fault).


      1. That may be so, but it’s hard to root for such an unlikeable character. I suppose the intention is for him to be cocky but charming enough to root for, but he just doesn’t do it for me. The movie itself is still pretty fun (I feel like Michael Bay used this as his template for future movie making) and love the Berlin song.


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