The release of Top Gun: Maverick, 36 years after the Tony Scott-directed original, inevitably brings to the surface images of Reagan-era action cinema.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, ET, Lethal Weapon, Return of the Jedi, not forgetting of course Top Gun – for the news deposit – and the aptly named Back to the future”. At the mere mention of these blockbusters, the eyes of a whole generation of viewers light up, if not more so, like the good old 35mm projector of a neighborhood cinema in front of the multiplexes. You don’t even have to turn on the time capacitor of Doc and Martys DeLorean to travel to the 80s.
At the time, American cinema was living in the “New Hollywood” era. Far removed from its golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, symbolized by “Gone with the Wind”, Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth, it must draw back to its dark chambers the audience that has been captivated by the almighty television.
In order for him to leave his comfortable sofa, feature films must promote escape and sell entertainment with plenty of original scenarios and impressive fiction. Sci-Fi and action (sometimes combined) are the key ingredients in this recipe for success, spiced up with expensive special effects.
Some films (“Footloose”, “Dirty Dancing”) are also based on concise music titles and “aggressive” editing, multiplying short shots, resembling music videos that simultaneously explode on the small screen with the appearance of the MTV music channel.
“Top Gun” is part of that popular culture of pure and hard entertainment delivered to a nation still scarred by the trauma of the Vietnamese swamp. America is looking for heroes. She finds it thanks to action cinema. And it’s quite symbolic that Ronald Reagan is the President-elect, and even re-elected, to get through this decade. A purely Republican product, he first made a name for himself as an actor in B-movies, a popular film genre during Hollywood’s golden age.
“The 80s were the moment of fame, the moment of the stars. It is also the culture of the body that appears in cinema.
Achilleas Papakonstantis, lecturer in the Department of History and Aesthetics of Cinema at the University of Lausanne
“The 80s were the moment of fame, the moment of the stars. With Stallone, Schwarzenegger and, a little later, Bruce Willis, it is also the culture of the body that appears in cinema,” emphasizes Achilleas Papakonstantis, lecturer in the Department of History and Aesthetics of Cinema at the University of Lausanne (UNIL). The precision he brings is a perfect match for the testosterone pumped beach volleyball part of the original Top Gun.
Behind the camera, two men who had their first experiences in the past decade embody that era of simple and effective blockbusters: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Whether they work together – the Indiana Jones trilogy – or separately – ET for the first, the Star Wars saga for the second – they are American cinema of the Reagan years. Even if the seventh art isn’t monomaniacal to the point of oblivion, say more polished films like Amadeus or Dead Poets Circle.
We also find Lucas and Spielberg at the forefront of a phenomenon that was popping up on screens during this period: sequel films. “In fact, this seriality is not new. It’s almost contemporary with cinema as it dates back to the 10’s and 20’s.
After the release of the sound film, production was limited almost exclusively to said film B moviessays Achilleas Papakonstantis. And the doctoral student continues: “The resurgence of serial practices in the 1980s is consistent with a new economic strategy developed by the multinationals that produce these feature films.”
They use them to make event films, the profitability of which they want to push far beyond the scope of the cinema screen by developing spin-off products. The characters thus invade the supermarket shelves, as figurines or as heroes of an emerging market: video games.
Be that as it may, these blockbusters owe their global success to the wide range of interpretations they offer audiences. “Today it would be too easy to label them as pure entertainment products. It is better to use our historical review to try to analyze their speeches in all their complexity,” concludes the UNIL teacher.
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