Don’t Think, Just Do – Top Gun: Maverick (2022) 4K Ultra HD

Culture often seems to move in thirty-year cycles. Growing up back in the 1980s, it felt like nostalgia for the 1950s was everywhere, as my parents’ generation hit middle age and started pining for their own youths. Now here we are another three decades hence, only to find the United States in a renewed Cold War with Russia, Night Court back on TV, and the new Top Gun a huge blockbuster smash. It’s 1986 all over again. Should we do another Hands Across America?

Released in the summer of 2022, a good 36 years after the original, Top Gun: Maverick soared straight to the top of the box office just as its predecessor had. In addition to the film being such a belated sequel, that achievement is even more impressive considering that the entire theatrical industry has been in disarray ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Yet Top Gun brought people back to theaters, to the tune of earning nearly $1.5 billion in revenue. Say what you will about the man and his controversial religious issues, Tom Cruise knows how to be a movie star.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - Tom Cruise
Title:Top Gun: Maverick
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: Blu-ray
MGM+ (Epix)
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

What took so long to make a Top Gun sequel, anyway? After as big a hit as the original had been, you’d think Paramount would crank out a Top Gun 2 within a couple years and a Top Gun 3 before the decade was over, each a little less successful than the last until the audience’s good will ran out. Somehow, that didn’t happen. If you believe the star, Tom Cruise says he wouldn’t let a sequel get made until they had a worthy story to tell with it. I’m not sure whether he really had enough clout and power at the time to make that decision himself (he certainly does now, of course), and one can quip about how he allowed Mission: Impossible 2 or Jack Reacher 2 to happen. Regardless, whatever the reason, Top Gun remained a singular phenomenon. As the decades passed, the actor got older, and the rah-rah patriotic jingoism of the 1980s faded into the political morass we have today, the likelihood of a follow-up seemed more and more remote – until, finally, Cruise decided that the world needed Top Gun again. Amazingly, he was right.

As you can gather from the title, Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, ace Navy fighter pilot. In the years since the events of the first film, Maverick has refused promotions in order to remain flying. “I’m where I belong,” he insists. We pick up with him as a test pilot on experimental new planes, until he’s called back to the elite Fighter Weapons School, this time as an instructor to train a new generation of hotshot pilots, who of course assume this old man has nothing to offer them. It doesn’t take long for him to disabuse them of that notion. When an emergency crisis arises requiring an air strike for which drones are not an option, Maverick faces a ticking clock to prepare the team for a mission that seems… well, impossible. No surprise, the teacher may even have to get involved in the action himself.

All things considered, that sketch of a plot – and, to be honest, the film really only has a sketch of a plot – is probably the only way a Top Gun sequel this late in the game could possibly work. Is it an amazingly fresh or original story that had to be a sequel to Top Gun? Not hardly, but the original wasn’t exactly renowned for its screenplay quality either. The film’s writers (among them, Cruise’s frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie) have carefully calibrated it to check off every important box on a fan’s wish list while avoiding the pitfalls that have sunk many other sequels. In short, the script may not do anything spectacularly innovative, but everything it does, it does well. More importantly, it doesn’t do anything wrong. Maverick is everything a sequel to Top Gun needs to be, and nothing it doesn’t. Finding that balance is harder to pull off than it sounds.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - The Next Generation

Naturally, a big heaping of fan-service is a requirement in any project like this. Among other winks and nods, Val Kilmer turns up for a cameo as Iceman, Maverick rides his motorcycle on an air strip while fighter jets take off behind him, and of course that iconic Harold Faltermeyer theme blares on the soundtrack. Miles Teller plays the son of Maverick’s former partner Goose. The movie even squeezes in a shirtless sports match on the beach (football this time) to let the boys bond. If admittedly gratuitous, all these callbacks stop short of becoming too obnoxious.

Faults are relatively minor and forgivable. A storyline about Maverick’s romance with a bar owner (Jennifer Connelly) is rather pointless and seems like a waste of an Oscar-winning actress’ time. That could’ve been cut without hurting the film at all. The movie also bends over backwards to be apolitical, to the point that it refuses to identify the nondescript “Enemy” for fear of offending China or its allies in Russia and risk being banned from the lucrative Chinese market. You’d think the writers could’ve at least made up a fake country name or something.

Because Tony Scott passed away in 2012, Cruise recruited his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski to helm this one. Kosinski isn’t quite the stylist or image-maker that Scott was, and the couple studio-mandated pop songs on the soundtrack (by One Republic and Lady Gaga) feel perfunctory and forgettable rather than like integral pieces of the film’s fabric. Nevertheless, he does an adequate job aping the look and key imagery of the first film. More importantly, he’s an excellent technical craftsman, which is what Cruise really wanted out of him. The star/producer’s mission statement for this project was to make Maverick a pure, visceral cinematic spectacle that would overwhelm viewers, especially those who saw it on the big screen. To that end, the sequel is loaded with incredibly elaborate aerial and stunt sequences, mostly filmed with the actors in real planes in the air rather than soundstage sets safe on the ground. In these days when too many filmmakers rely on green-screens and CGI to conjure up their action scenes mostly in post-production, the commitment to practical stunts and effects here is seriously impressive. For his part in that, Kosinski actually improves upon the original Top Gun with a much clearer sense of spacial continuity in the way the set-pieces are staged and choreographed. The ploy obviously paid off with audiences, who flocked to see the movie on the largest screens possible.

Ultimately, Top Gun: Maverick is still a popcorn movie, just like the original was. Some chatter among fans demanding that it be named Best Picture at Oscar time seems ridiculous to me (despite its token nomination). The film doesn’t have nearly enough weight or substance to merit that, in my opinion. But as popcorn entertainment goes, this is a superlative example of the form. It earns and deserves its popularity, and I fully expect that I’ll watch it again, likely more than a few times.

Top Gun Maverick (2022) - Jets

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

After its successful run in theaters, Top Gun: Maverick was released to digital VOD platforms in August of 2022 and then to physical media (DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD) in November. More recently, just before the year ended, it began streaming by subscription on Paramount+ and Epix (now rebranding as MGM+).

I’m one of the few people who didn’t see the movie in theaters, because I didn’t see any movies in theaters in 2022. That didn’t stop me from purchasing the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in an attractive SteelBook edition from Best Buy. (I still have a weakness for SteelBooks when the artwork on them isn’t terrible.)

In the majority of theaters, Maverick was projected at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. However, IMAX theaters had a Variable Aspect Ratio presentation that expanded in height to a taller 1.90:1 during key scenes. Because director Joseph Kosinski apparently favors that version, all home video editions are presented in VAR form. Approximately an hour of footage (nearly half the film’s length) is open-matte 1.90:1.

Aside from those who find the variable aspect ratio annoying or distracting, most viewers watching on typical HDTVs or other 16:9 screens will have no issue with it. Unfortunately, the format is more problematic to those few of us with Constant Image Height projection screens, for which movies like this simply don’t fit. To make it work, I chose to use my projector’s electronic blanking function to mask off the extra height at the top and bottom, displaying the entire film at a constant 2.40:1 ratio. Because Top Gun: Maverick was photographed with the 2.40:1 theatrical area in the direct center of the camera sensors, this effectively replicates the movie’s presentation in all theaters other than IMAX.

Some self-appointed purists may argue that VAR is the “director’s intent,” but the truth is that the director (and his cinematographer and camera operators) had to compose for both presentations, and both are fully legitimate. What can be stated for certain is that the director definitely did not intend for the 2.40:1 portions of the movie to be shrunken down into the center of a likewise-shaped screen with large black bars on all sides for no good reason.

Comparing the two on a standard 16:9 screen, the VAR version mostly exposes extra headroom above the actors, often a lot of extra headroom. One can debate whether that additional headroom benefits the feeling of height in the aerial sequences, but while watching in 2.40:1 CIH, not one shot in the entire movie ever looks improperly framed or missing any relevant picture information.

The following comparison had to be simulated since no home video edition offers the movie in CIH form. As should be clear, nothing important is lost in the crop. Most audiences who saw the movie theatrically watched it in constant 2.40:1, and the photography was explicitly framed with that in mind. It works just fine cropped for Constant Image Height. But, if you prefer the variable ratio version, by all means enjoy it that way.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - CIH 2.40:1Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - IMAX 1.90:1

In other respects, the Ultra HD disc’s video lives up to that oft-abused term home theater fans like to call “reference quality.” Photographed with IMAX digital cameras, the image is exceedingly sharp and detailed, and really takes advantage of the extra resolution in 4K. Some light grain is occasionally noticeable for texture, but Maverick is nowhere near as grainy as the original Top Gun. On the other hand, the sequel does play with heavy color washes as a subtle callback to the prior movie. The High Dynamic Range grading is well done and adds a lot of vibrancy and depth to the picture.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is extremely directional with fighter jet sounds zipping all around the room and overhead. Voices sometimes come from above as well. Yet the track sounds to be mostly locked to a 7.1.2 configuration with fixed sound objects that only rarely (and barely audibly) bleed over to Front Wide speakers or more than two heights. I had to put my ear right up to some of my speakers to hear anything come out of them. That’s disappointing, but the track is so busy that it’s hard to complain too much.

The musical score, credited to both Harold Faltermeyer and Hans Zimmer, has a broad spread despite the lack of Front Wides and a decent amount of bassy rumble. I’ve seen grumbling online about the movie’s LFE being tame, but I found the soundtrack’s dynamics satisfying overall. Perhaps the bass could go deeper or hit harder, but Maverick is certainly not as neutered in dynamic range as, for example, any typical Disney soundtrack these days.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) - 4k Ultra HD SteelBook

In quite a rarity, the UHD disc in the set actually has more extras than the accompanying regular Blu-ray. Both discs share four short promotional featurettes straight from the Electronic Press Kit (in which we are hilariously informed that Tom Cruise is the world’s foremost expert in aerial photography and personally choreographed all the stunts in the film himself), plus a couple awful music videos. Exclusive to the 4K platter is a 50-minute “Masterclass” lecture by Cruise given at the Cannes Film Festival, in which the star discusses his career and passion for filmmaking.


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

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