WHEN: 6:11am EST, November 24th, 2012

WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)

FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV

COMPANY: None

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just woke up from a nap, ready to go.

TODAY’S FOCUS: How Do The Aerial Sequences in Top Gun Improve Over Past Films, and Do They Hold Up Compared to Today’s Films?

Prior to today’s viewing, I watched the most recent film featuring dogfights I could find, 2012’s Red Tails, followed by the oldest film featuring dogfights I could find, 1927’s Wings.

I’m only comparing the dogfights, not the overall quality of the films, but if you’re wondering… eh.

REACTIONS OF NOTE:

  • I became more aware of the editing during the aerial scenes this time around, so I used the stopwatch on my iPhone and hit “Lap” every time a new shot was cut to during the first hop. Out of 111 shots, over the course of 3 minutes and 44 seconds, based on a list that I am absolutely not re-typing here*, the average shot length in the first hop is 2.0162 seconds. Sorry, the math viewing must have gotten to me.
  • My Blu-Ray skipped during Charlie and Maverick’s date. Can a disc not handle 52 viewings in one year?
  • The absence of sound in Wings gave me a greater appreciation for the sound design in Top Gun. At least, I noticed it more.

AERIAL COMBAT MANEUVERING THROUGH THE AGES:
Top Gun‘s aerial scenes have been praised by Roger Ebert for being realistic and easy to follow, but they’ve also been criticized by Leonard Maltin as playing out like video games. I see nuggets of truth in both of these claims, but it leads me to wonder; what truly makes a movie impressive?

People liked to throw out the phrase “the MTV generation” around movies as rapidly edited as Top Gun, because you know kids and their short attention spans. But really, every twist, turn, and flame-out in Top Gun makes sense. Your eyes and your brain might be distracted by the rapid edits, but you know what’s happening. Wings, on the other hand, has some fairly bad continuity, which I almost give a pass, as older movies will sometimes cut without even changing the shot. Honestly, it’s not terrible, but there are a few scenes where a plane appears to have jumped 500 yards to the right and is now upside down. And Red Tails, which can rely completely on CGI to fix mistakes, still confused me in one scene; a plane was plummeting towards the ground, but the interior seemed to still be upright. I couldn’t tell which plane I was looking at. I never had any problems like this in Top Gun.

Now, how does the editing affect the excitement? Well, an interesting pattern emerges. Wings tends to keep the action in a wide shot, with long takes. Top Gun opts for a series of angles that keep rapidly changing: wing view, medium shot, tail view, cockpit, wide, wheel view, etc. Red Tails, it seems, has landed somewhat in the middle, using a few rapid cuts sparingly and then grabbing your attention by following one plane’s demise or pulling back wide and letting you really take in the madness.

Seriously, look at this sky.

That’s only the back angle. There are just as many planes on the other side, guns blazing. And before you think that this movie, being a Lucasfilm production, suffers from action overload like Attack of the Clones, it makes up for the overwhelmingly crowded battles by taking the time to focus on one attack. It’s nice, lingering camerawork that, well, feels like camerawork. This has become pretty popular in modern CGI (see Firefly, Battlestar Galactica), but does it cover up that what we’re seeing is, in fact, fake?

Realism is an important part of adding to the sense of danger, and unfortunately, for every time you’re wowed by a scene in Red Tails, your brain taps you on the shoulder and reminds you that aerial choreography is pretty easy when it doesn’t involve any aircraft. Contrast this with Wings, in which the actors are actually flying the planes. Yes, really; Richard Arlen had served in World War I and already knew how to fly a plane, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers went through flight training. This is a man in the sky:

And this is a man in a fake cockpit in front of a projector screen:

And this, for all I know, is a man on a toilet in a bright green room:

So since Top Gun is full of little models and sissy boys in plastic bubbles, and Red Tails was farted out by soulless robots, Wings must look the most realistic because it is real, right? Well… not entirely. There are scenes where you can tell that the plane is on the ground… embarrassingly so. And when a plane catches fire, it’s suddenly being pestered by a clingy streak of yellow paint.

 It might look okay standing still, but trust me, it’s awkward.

And that scene where they actually crashed a plane into a house… wait, did they actually crash a plane into a house?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell. I read that two crashes were staged for this film, but I don’t know if this was one of them. Still, it looks amazing. However, at the end of the day, the movie that you have to suspend your belief for the least is Top Gun. The models are great, the cockpit shots blend well, and the variety of methods used to film in the air make you feel like you’re there. Wings gets bonus points for being the oldest and having to work the hardest to pull off its effects, and while Red Tails has some truly eye-popping camera movements, they’re ultimately tarnished because they’re all inside a computer. The winner for realism is Top Gun.

Top Gun stands out in two very odd ways, though. First, most of the aerial scenes aren’t actual combat. The pilots are just training. Wings starts with two characters who don’t know how to fly a plane, and still, they skip over that part, because boring. And Red Tails opens with bullets flying. That’s a mark against Top Gun for excitement, though it certainly makes Goose’s death a surprise. Which brings us to our second point; Top Gun doesn’t show pilots dying. Minus Goose, when a plane gets shot, we go to wide and watch it blow up. The end. Both Red Tails and Wings show the poor bastards bleeding to death, getting engulfed in flames, you name it. My guess is they were further trying to dehumanize the enemy. They’ve already got their visors down. Might as well pull back and let the audience know we’re just blowing up a plane, not a human being.

I suppose that’s a story point and not a choreography point, but while we’re on the subject of story, wow, all three of these are pretty unwatchable. They each have their emotional moments, but not more than one or two. Is this a deliberate technique to make the action more exciting? Because it needs to stop, frankly.

Okay, who gets the high score overall for the best aerial sequences?

Red Tails.

Really, the effects aren’t perfect, but the camerawork is incredible. If this had been edited like Top Gun, it would have been a nightmare. Top Gun‘s strengths come from how much you feel like you’re in the cockpit, but Red Tails really gave me a sense of awe. I didn’t feel like I was flying a plane, but I felt like I could die at any moment. There is a single shot in Red Tails where we see our heroes flying to battle, and the camera pushes past them to reveal that they’re being followed. It’s such a natural movement that it draws you in. And Wings can’t be left out here. If anything, Red Tails looks good because George Lucas is openly a fan of Wings, which he partially used to inspire the dogfights in Star Wars. Keeping the long takes and wide angles of Wings was absolutely the right move, and even though it’s not as impressive when you factor in that it’s all being done with computers, it stands out as something really incredible.

*Okay, fine, here you go: 4.7, 3.6, 1.4, 1.1, 0.6, 1.2, 1.5, 1.3, 1.3, 1, 2.4, 2.2, 1.8, 2.7, 3.8, 2.2, 2.8, 2.1, 2, 2.4, 2, 2.4, 1.7, 2.8, 2.3, 2.6, 1.5, 0.9, 0.6, 1.5, 1.8, 1.4, 1.3, 1.5, 2.4, 4.4, 1.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5, 0.8, 0.9, 2.8, 1.5, 1.2, 2, 2.1, 1.5, 1.4, 1.3, 1, 0.6, 1.8, 1, 1.1, 2.6, 1.6, 1.5, 1.2, 1.2, 1.8, 3.1, 2.5, 2.6, 1.7, 2, 1.6, 1.7, 2.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.9, 0.8, 0.8, 1.4, 2.1, 2.4, 4, 2.9, 4.6, 3.8, 2.1, 1.6, 1.9, 1.1, 1.7, 1.4, 1.4, 1.2, 2.2, 1.5, 4.4, 2.6, 3.4, 2.2, 2, 2.9, 3.6, 2.6, 2.9, 2.6, 1.5, 1.9, 1.6, 1.5, 1.4, 1.3, 2.1, 2, 4, 2.8.