Top Gun (1986)

Tony Scott | 1hr 50min

There is something a little wistful in the opening exposition of Top Gun, informing us of the elite school established by the United States Navy to train the next generation of fighter pilots. It describes aerial combat as a “lost art”, practiced only by the select few men who graduate and go on to serve their nation. Before we are allowed to witness it in action though, Tony Scott leads into it with a slow, steady build, setting silhouettes of jets and pilots warming up on the tarmac against a burnt orange sky and low horizon. The early morning light is delicately diffused softly through a light mist, and then, as these men finally take off, so too does the film, playing out a montage of aerial sequences as exhilarating as they are immaculately executed.

The first time ‘Danger Zone’ turns up in Top Gun’s soundtrack, it comes as a rousing though affectionately cheesy underscore to this opening adrenaline rush, aggressively warning us of the thrills and terror to be found in this line of work. After the fifth time it plays, it hits a point of diminishing returns, edging from tactfully familiar to plainly over-used. Still, the visual awe of the tight jet formations that the song accompanies and Scott’s decision to fix his camera to plane cockpits never quite grows stale, flying us through their air with no regards to gravity or orientation. Whether these pilots are simply playing around, running drills, or engaging in real aerial combat, he keeps up an elated energy in his editing and camerawork, skilfully controlling the tension and release of every manoeuvre his characters execute.

When it comes to defining those characters, Scott opts for clean, memorable archetypes, each one embodied in their call name. There is little that the moniker Maverick leaves up to the imagination when we first meet Tom Cruise’s charming daredevil, and his rival, Iceman, similarly takes his title from his flying style and attitude, remaining cool under pressure and persistently wearing down opponents. Goose rounds out our trio of main pilots here, though joining in as Maverick’s love interest and instructor, Charlie, is Kelly McGillis, offering up a chemistry with Cruise that save even some of the corniest scenes.

Where ‘Danger Zone’ marks Top Gun’s aerial sequences, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is assigned to its romantic narrative thread, and is pulled off to greater effect if only for its slightly less prominent and more varied use. Its introductory riff often teases the sexual tension between Cruise and McGillis as they edge towards a consummation, but it isn’t until Scott brings us into that dark bedroom with dim blue light filtering through its curtains that it is played in full. In the silhouettes of bodies and faces inching closer together, Scott marks another key narrative development with visual splendour, opting for raw emotional power over any eloquent verbal expressions of love.

It is a fortunate thing too given how Top Gun’s screenplay tends to bog it down in plotting that is so signposted one could count down the seconds until the next plot point. Perhaps the main exception to this though is the heartbreaking midpoint turn, which sees Goose killed during a particularly dangerous training session. The weight that this holds over Maverick’s character arc from this point on is significant, tempering his reckless confidence with a great deal of guilt, and re-asserting the stakes that come with aerial combat.

Cruise carries this drastic shift well, shifting seamlessly from his charming action star persona into a broken man grappling with the realisation that his defining gift is also his downfall. Had the chemistry of Top Gun been slightly different with Cruise or Scott replaced by a lesser actor or director, it could have edged entirely into the realm of tacky entertainment, devoid of any redeeming qualities. As it is though, it stands as an admirable piece of action cinema, lifting the genre up to new heights and coasting along on its electrifying pacing.

Top Gun is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen | 1hr 47min

If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most experimentally formal film in its boundlessly creative self-reflexivity, Hannah and Her Sister’s structural ambition acts as a counterpoint to that in its far more naturalistic and composed approach, unfolding like chapters of a novel. The decades of history behind the dysfunctional family relationships that swirl around Mia Farrow’s titular Hannah feel tangible in their organic interactions, and although she is the link through which each narrative thread of this film comes together, she is not our focus. Instead, Allen shifts our attention to three other characters around her – her cheating husband Elliot, her hypochondriacal ex-husband Mickey, and her chaotic, formerly drug addicted sister Holly. Just as her self-absorbed relatives take her bountiful generosity for granted, so too does Allen relegate her own personal issues to the background of each story arc, wrapping us up in the internal voiceovers of men and women who can only perceive the world through their own narrowed perspectives, passing us from one to the next like batons in a race that each character is running only for themselves.

Formally impressive bookends in these family Thanksgiving celebrations that Allen’s camera floats through, the only times all his characters are all captured in one space.

In its bookends of two Thanksgiving parties set 24 months apart, Hannah and Her Sisters is marked by those family gatherings where relatives who might barely see each other throughout the year converge and share in moments of unity, though evidently here that comfort is only found by those willing to open themselves up to lives beyond their own. As Allen’s camera idly drifts around this upscale New York apartment at either end of this narrative, we see these important players brought together in one space, their personal arcs laid out clearly by the contrasting dynamics of both celebrations.

Of course, it is Hannah who is responsible for running these events, remaining the one constant in the lives of those around her who fluctuate and change. This image of poise and altruism that she projects may stir some gratefulness on occasion, but it also inspires insecurity. “I need someone I can matter to,” whines Elliot when reflecting upon the growing distance between him and his seemingly perfectly wife. Worsening the situation is that his secret lover is Lee, another of Hannah’s sisters, whose abuse of her sibling’s trust just piles onto the stack of characters who cannot reconcile their love for her with their own sense of value. She might agree with Elliot that “It’s hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return”, but it is barely a reasonable excuse for either of their philandering. Even so, it remains quite extraordinary that in Michael Caine’s performance we can still find sympathy for this kind of egocentric self-doubt.

A pair of matching shots revealing the significant Antonioni influence on Allen’s work, using architecture and backgrounds to paint out pictures of isolation and disillusionment.

Meanwhile in Mickey’s storyline we find a man wading through the murky philosophical waters of existentialism and mortality, his apprehensive medical check-ups played out in comical montages of contraptions and wires winding all over his body. Like Elliot, he too is plagued by insecurities that overwhelm his own perception of reality, in one scene hallucinating his doctor’s sombre delivery of the news that he has cancer, right before the doctor actually walks in and informs him that he is clear. In one harsh cut, he leaps out onto the streets of New York, dancing with glee to the tune of loud band music, before suddenly stopping dead in his tracks as he nihilistically reminds himself that he will still die one day.

The foregrounding of Socrates as Mickey considers the “great minds” of philosophy in voiceover.

Driven by his mid-life crisis to find the answers to life’s big questions, Mickey considers converting to different religions as casually as one might research a holiday destination, though it is only when he embraces the unknowability of his existential queries and when his story collides with Holly’s that he finds his way back into the folds of the family as a place of acceptance. She lives perhaps the messiest life of anyone else here, moving between acting, a catering business, and television writing, and struggling to find success in any of these ventures. It is clear in her thoughtless use of Hannah’s personal life as a subject for her screenplay that like the others, she doesn’t give much regard to her sister’s feelings, though in finally turning her pen inwards in self-examination she finds both love and professional success with Mickey.

Through the complex tapestry of vignettes, flashbacks, and plot threads that make up Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen keeps returning to chapter breaks and philosophical quotes, structuring the film like a piece of literature concerned with the bearing of human thought and ethics on small lives. “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless,” Allen’s text displays, quoting Tolstoy as a means to contextualise Mickey’s search for purpose, while titles like “The Abyss”, “The Audition”,and “The Big Leap” mark new episodes over the two years this story is set across. Allen further splits up his characters by associating them with specific musical genres, underscoring Elliot’s scenes with opera, Mickey’s with jazz, and revealing Holly’s love of rock in one particular flashback that also divulges it as a historical point of conflict between her and Mickey.

Allen’s camera continuing to float all throughout the film, a highlight being at this lunch between all three sisters as it circles their table.

Even with such fantastic formal ambition in its divisions, Hannah and Her Sisters flows remarkably smoothly in its organic character drama and dialogue. When all three sisters meet for lunch in a brief collision of plot threads, Allen fluidly circles his camera around their table, letting Hannah and Holly converse over the latter’s career struggles while focusing predominantly on a silent, guilty Lee. Back at home, their discussions and volatile arguments move through different rooms of the apartment, and Allen’s camera continues to pan and drift along with them, framing these family members in doorways and against walls that confine them to claustrophobic spaces. Through their quarrels there is seemingly always some domestic chore or task for them to perform, maintaining that impression of a world beyond their own immediate issues, while keeping up a restless energy in their ongoing interactions.

Antonioni’s influence again in the framing of characters within corridors and doorways, alienated from others by the visual dividers in the mise-en-scène.

How fascinating it is though that in this ensemble of magnificently complex and flawed characters, the one who we might assume would be the lead is the least developed of them all. She too might have her own hilarious and poignant anecdotes to tell, but Hannah and Her Sisters is primarily intrigued by those more selfish lives which branch out from her own, undergoing emotional arcs that come to decisive resolutions. For someone as kind and giving as Hannah, whose life is dedicated to the endless pursuit of helping others, a tidy, gratifying ending is simply an unfathomable prospect.

Mickey and Holly’s storylines slowly coming together, still divided in this shot but eventually united in the final Thanksgiving lunch.

Hannah and Her Sisters is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min

It feels a little odd to separate the “pop art” end of David Cronenberg’s body horror spectrum from the other extremity which might more aptly be labelled “high art”, but it is not hard to see why The Fly ended up being his most commercially successful film when compared to something as cold and pensive as Dead Ringers. The terminal illness metaphor is not wasted in the subtext of this intelligent screenplay, nor does Cronenberg ever falter in intelligently picking apart the mad scientist’s disturbed psyche, yet in binding The Fly’s narrative so closely to the gripping, visceral decay of Seth Brundle’s body, it becomes a film that sticks in the mind for the sort of brazen, kitschy ugliness one can’t tear their eyes away from.

Also integral to The Fly’s status as piece of pop horror is how much it is in conversation with more classical entries into the genre, itself being a remake of the 1958 B-movie of the same name. The story of a scientist’s transformation into a human-fly hybrid after an experiment gone wrong is grounded in archetypes stretching back to 19th century Gothic literature, when Dr Victor Frankenstein broke all laws of nature to create an ungodly creature. The 1931 movie adaptation of Frankenstein might be the better comparison to draw here though, especially given how much its mechanical laboratory set is evoked in the machines, steam, and pipes crowding out Brundle’s warehouse apartment. Howard Shore’s daunting symphonic score of dissonant strings and majestic horns feels especially evocative of classical Hollywood horror films, and in similar fashion to other such great mad scientist stories as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Brundle becomes his own test subject, mutating his body in a gruesome manner to expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

A lab of mechanical contraptions, lights, and smoke – a 1980s update of the lab from James Whale’s Frankenstein.

And yet for all its grounding in familiar narrative and genre conventions, The Fly is unmistakably a sickeningly stylistic effort from Cronenberg to leave his imprint on pop culture. An early scene that sees one of Brundle’s experiments inadvertently turn a monkey inside-out is stomach-turning, but it is simply a warning for what is to come, as the plot continues down a path of escalating confrontations with conventions of good taste. Jeff Goldblum’s body is a canvas for Cronenberg’s own experimentations, as well as those of special effects artist Chris Walas and make-up artist Stephan Dupuis, who together visualise Brundle’s malignant decay through lumpy, discoloured prosthetics. Images of the scientist’s fingernails slowly peeling off and his acidic vomit dissolving food for consumption are scrutinised up close in tight frames, but such an intimate shooting style also allows us to look past the make-up and behold the disturbed sensitivity of Goldblum’s tragic performance.

The tics, the vocal work, the physicality – this transformational performance is a career highpoint for Jeff Goldblum.

Because yes, beyond all its practical effects and upsettingly visceral imagery, The Fly is ultimately a tragedy. This malevolent force is not only taking over Brundle’s body, but his mind as well, robbing him of everything that made him such a brilliant, intelligent scientist, and replacing it with something abhorrent, cruel, and selfish. Everything we witness, from the twitching to the hair falling out, is simply a manifestation of an internal deterioration taking place, and therein lies Cronenberg’s frighteningly primal reflection of terminal illness. In a largely silent finale of pulsating lights and atmospheric smoke, the frail vulnerability of the human body is on full display, as this flesh-obsessed director rips it apart to reveal the mutation’s final, repulsive form – the ‘Brundlefly’.

As Shore’s orchestra reaches a powerful climax, and the repugnant creature we see before us crawls pathetically along the ground, we recognise an agonising loss that has taken place. The loss of a great mind, a potential romance, and a passionate scientist, reduced down to a pale imitation of nature that can barely sustain its own existence. There is no need for any kind of wistful epilogue to follow up the abrupt, violent conclusion of The Fly, as in these final few minutes, Cronenberg ambitiously reaches into the jaws of disgust, and from its nauseating depths remarkably draws out pure, desolate heartbreak.

Repulsive, yes. But you have to feel sorry for the humanity that is still trapped inside this pitifully mutated figure.

The Fly is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.