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Theory: Top Gun: Maverick Is (Mostly) a Death Dream

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise’s character dies at the start of Top Gun: Maverick. I am arguing this not as one of those acts of fan theorizing that pops up on Reddit from time to time — you know, that Ferris Bueller is actually a figment of Cameron’s fevered mind, or that Marsellus Wallace’s soul is contained in that suitcase kicking around in Pulp Fiction — but as the only way to really make sense of the movie. There is, as my colleague Bilge Ebiri observed, something haunting and unreal and stubbornly dreamlike about the sun-soaked world of Top Gun: Maverick, which hinges on the unlikely summoning of Cruise’s renegade flyboy Pete “Maverick” Mitchell back to San Diego to prepare a new generation of pilots for a mission so ridiculously difficult that he’s the only one who can conceive of a way of accomplishing it.

The logic of this scenario — Maverick is, by any account, a terrible member of the military, no matter his talents — is as spongy as everything that follows. The slew of fresh young flyers are tauter-skinned and more diverse and less prone to using unnecessary punctuation in their texts than Maverick, but of course are still nowhere near as skilled. The enemy they’re going up against has not just been left unnamed, as they were in the 1986 Top Gun, but deliberately unparsable, with a combination of qualities that can’t be mapped onto any existing nation. There’s a hermetic eeriness to the San Diego naval base, which is so unstuck in time that when Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late friend and RIO Goose (Anthony Edwards), makes his entrance at a bar, it’s in the same shirt and mustache as his dad. When he sits down at the piano to sing the same song (“Great Balls of Fire”), he feels less like a new character than a ghost stuck in the grooves of the original film.

You can make sense of this unreality simply by considering Top Gun: Maverick as the project and projection of one of the last movie stars, a movie that will contort itself in every way possible to make Cruise more gleamingly dominant than ever before, even as the years tick by for him and for all of us. But it’s more fun to imagine the film is a death dream, an Incident at Owl Creek Bridge fantasy taking place in the instant before Maverick blinks out of existence high above the Mojave Desert. After all, Maverick crashes twice in the sequel, the second time during the final act of the film, in a heroic act of self-sacrifice over enemy territory after a series of implausibly acrobatic aerial maneuvers. But the first — the first crash is genuinely weird. Weird enough to hang this thesis on.

When Top Gun: Maverick begins, its title character is still flying, having successfully skirted all promotions, and is working as a test pilot for a hypersonic jet that’s on the verge of being discontinued for having not yet reached its promised speed of Mach 10. Rear Admiral Cain, played by a desiccated Ed Harris, plans to shift the funding over to unmanned aircraft, which he believes are the future, and is coming to shut the program down personally. This gives Maverick just enough time for one last flight, and one last attempt to save the program from getting scrapped. He takes to the air, his speed ticking up decimal point by decimal point until he reaches what was supposed to be the day’s goal of Mach 9, and then keeps going past it. This sequence is strikingly beautiful, up in the calm dark of the stratosphere with the curvature of the planet clear as Maverick edges up to become, as Bashir Salahuddin’s character reverently notes, the fastest man on earth.

He makes Mach 10, and then, because he can’t help himself, tries to push the plane just a little harder, a little more, to disastrous effect. We cut to a shot looking up from the ground to see the aircraft strewn in pieces across the sky. It looks unsurvivable, impossible, a tragedy — but then there’s Cruise, shellshocked and covered in dust, somehow alive and walking into a diner, with all the patrons turning to gawp wide-eyed as he wordlessly takes a glass of water, drinks it, and asks in a croak where he is. And which is easier to believe? That Maverick makes it out of that crash untouched, skates past the consequences of another insubordination that destroyed a surely very expensive experiment aircraft, and is called back to the scene of his greatest triumph to wrap up loose ends, reunite with his youthful hookup, and prove that he’s still the best? Or that those are all hallucinatory images coming from the last synaptic firings of a past-his-prime flyboy getting smeared across the horizon alongside the pieces of his jet?

The latter, obviously. Though what really makes this theory so satisfying is that the unspoken theme of Top Gun: Maverick, like all recent additions to Cruise’s filmography, is that Tom Cruise will never die. He may wryly acknowledge the passing of time, may allow a few fetching crinkles to be shown around his eyes when he smiles, but it’s never going to catch him — not on screen, not if he can help it. He’s going to outrun it, or failing that, blow past it in a hypersonic jet, holding back mortality through force of will and some unfathomable combination of eldritch anti-aging treatments. Even if you take the new movie, a sequel arriving over three decades after the original, entirely at face value, it retains that feeling of hubristic poignancy, as though by trying this hard, Cruise is able to skirt associations of ego to reach something sweeter and sadder. Top Gun: Maverick may be wonderfully absurd, but its absurdity is that of someone dreaming impossible dreams right before they burn up in the atmosphere. You don’t need to see a shot of the crisped but grinning corpse at the end to sense its presence.

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Theory: Top Gun: Maverick Is Mostly a Death Dream