May 16, 1986.
It has been called “the day the movies died.” It was also the day Top Gun was unleashed in cinemas across the United States, where it would go on to gross nearly $180 million and become the biggest hit of the year, out-earning a little film called Crocodile Dundee by just under $2 million. (It hit Australian screens on July 31 the same year.)
Thirty years on, Top Gun remains a cinematic cornerstone, renowned for its dizzying aerial action sequences, chart-topping blockbuster soundtrack, memorable lines and star Tom Cruise’s timeless and toothy grin. The movie cemented his status as Hollywood’s golden boy, his performance a practical template for many of the roles he played in the decade following. Cocktail’s Brian Flanagan? Days of Thunder’s Cole Trickle? A Few Good Men’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee? The Firm’s Mitch McDeere? Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt? Jerry Maguire? All of them owes a debt to cocky fly boy Maverick. And Cruise himself owes a debt to the likes of Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage. All of them are said to have turned down the role.
Before Top Gun, Anthony Edwards (Goose) was best known for roles in teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgmont High and Revenge of the Nerds. After Top Gun, he was a household name who eventually spent years headlining the smash hit series ER. Before Top Gun, Meg Ryan (Carole) was best known as a soap opera star. After Top Gun, the movie offers rolled in—and she became one of the most bankable stars of the 1990s. It also revved up the careers of Val Kilmer (Iceman) and Tim Robbins (Merlin), but proved to be a mixed blessing for Kelly McGillis (Charlie), who would go on to make the Oscar-winning drama before turning away from Hollywood. (The actress, who came out in 2009, has said “We had a lot of partying” during the shoot, which was “like being at camp.”)
Top Gun made such an impact that the United States Navy reported the number of young men who enlisted wanting to be Naval aviators skyrocketed by 500 per cent after its release. Just as Cruise’s 1983 film Risky Business turned Ray-Ban Wayfarers into the sunglasses of choice for the cool kids, Top Gun brought aviator frames and bomber jackets back into style. When it was released on VHS tape in 1987, it was sold to consumers for $US26.95, then the cheapest-ever price for a new cassette of a major Hollywood movie. Until then, most VHS tapes retailed for about $80 or $90. After sales boomed, the home-video industry was never the same.
Nor, say many, were movies. In a 2011 essay for GQ, journalist and writer Mark Harris blamed the current state of the film industry—all prequels and sequels and remakes and reboots and comic-book adaptations galore—on Top Gun’s huge impact. Movies had, finally, become a totally marketable product. “That generation of 16- to 24-year-olds,” he writes, “the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them, is not in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite and the aesthetic of their late-‘80s post-adolescence that is shaping moviemaking.” So May 16, 1986 became, he reckons, the day movies may have died.
Of course, the women and gay men who grew up on Top Gun might say otherwise. Plenty of its fans would be thrilled to have a suave squadron of dudes serenade them with “You’ve Lost (That Lovin’ Feeling)” at the bar. Plenty have also watched the film’s notorious beach volleyball scene more than they care to admit. (In the 1994 film Sleep with Me, none other than Quentin Tarantino has a brief scene in which his character, Sid, calls Top Gun “a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.”)
Critics never loved Top Gun—the legendary Pauline Kael dubbed it a “recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but being a poster”but audiences didn’t care. Released at the tail end of the Cold War, it brazenly showcased American exceptionalism, slick male bodies on the beach and the kind of wish-fulfilment love story that only ever seems to happen in the movies. Sure, it had its tragic moments—Goose, we still mourn you—but it ends on a high. The Russians get theirs, the guy gets the girl, the audience gets to go home screaming “I feel the need … the need for speed!” out the car window.
Sequel talk has been bandied about for years—Cruise has said “I would like to get back into those jets” and Kilmer has also expressed interest in a return—but no firm plans have been set. (The film’s original director, Tony Scott, died in an apparent suicide in 2012.) Maybe it’s best left that way. After all, Cruise is still out there honouring its legacy with the same level of dazzle and joy that Maverick brought to the cockpit of every flight he took. Just watch.