Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Top Gun

Classic Tom Cruise trio's 4K treatment takes our breath away

By Jim Bray
May 21, 2020

Paramount Pictures has just unleashed three new – well, old – Tom Cruise movies on 4K disc and they're all good examples of the species.

Not necessarily the greatest movies, but in my experience a Tom Cruise film is almost always worth watching and these three – well, two of them anyway – are no exceptions to the rule.

The three are Top Gun (the original, just in time to help promote the sequel that's coming out later this year and isn't that an interesting coincidence?), Days of Thunder (aka "Top Gun at NASCAR") and War of the Worlds. Of the three, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is the best (though I didn't like it much the first time I watched it), with Top Gun close behind and Days of Thunder (which doesn't even have an upgraded audio track for those who have Dolby Atmos systems) bringing up the rear.

All are worth watching, and all really benefit from the 4K treatment, so if you haven't bought any of these discs for your library yet, but want to, these are definitely the ones to get.

Danger Zone…

Cruise was already a movie star when he did Top Gun back in 1986, with such leading roles as in Risky Business and Ridley Scott's Legend, but it was Scott's brother Tony's Top Gun that really saw his career, well, take off and soar.

It was a "lightning in a bottle" phenomenon where everything just came together: a likeable young star, a fun tale of American exceptionalism, plenty of neat military aviation footage and stunts, a cool romance and a musical score that spawned some big hits on the radio (Take my breath away, Danger Zone…).

And now, after at least a couple of other high definition releases, we have the picture quality for which we'd waited.

As for the movie itself, it's a fine guilty pleasure, especially if you're a pilot. It follows Cruise as Maverick, a cocky Navy jet pilot who brings enough baggage with him to fill the cargo storage section of an A-380. It came out a couple of years after my own flying "career," about 100 hours of single engine, fixed wing aircraft (Cessna 150 and 172) flying for pleasure in the mountains of British Columbia. As an aviation buff, I dragged my family to a theater when the movie came out because I wanted to experience those F-14 Tomcats on the biggest screen with the biggest sound I could find.

Now, other than the extreme size of a movie theatre screen, I can enjoy the film in an even better environment: a home theatre with a 75-inch 4K screen and 5.1 surround sound. No Atmos here, alas, because I find it hard to justify the expense and room changes it would require. Fortunately, Atmos dumbs itself down to conventional Dolby True HD, so you don't really need Atmos to enjoy it (especially since the movie wasn't mixed into Atmos originally anyway).

The flying scenes are indeed great, but the rest of Top Gun is pretty much a soap opera and rather predictable, but that means you can pretty well shut off your brain and only re-engage it when the jets fire up. And that's okay with me!

Days of Thunder

As I wrote in my original review of the movie, Tony Scott's film opens with hotshot pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) and his mates on duty on an aircraft carrier sailing the Indian Ocean, when a couple of Russian MiGs (well, they aren't really MiGs, but play them in the movie) crash their airspace and send their adrenaline level skyrocketing. Maverick's an excellent pilot, but (surprise, surprise) he's dangerous and reckless. The rules are meant for others.

Lots of clichés, eh? Well, that's Top Gun!

The estrogen among all the other testosterone factories in the movie comes from the lovely Kelly McGillis, whose "Charlie" is a ground-based expert/instructor on enemy aircraft. She's Maverick's love interest, eventually. More estrogen oozes from Meg Ryan, as the goose to Goose's (Maverick's partner) gander.

The film is still fun, but after nearly 35 years it's even hokier than it was then and that makes it hard to keep from squirming in the home theater. But there are the flying scenes…

Top Gun really shines in 4K, though the upgraded picture also upgrades the grain – which, to be honest, is as it should be since I really want to see the best representation of the original picture that I can. It isn't the best 4K representation I've seen, but it's easily the best Top Gun available to date.

You'll really notice the 4K improvement via the fine detail in hair, uniforms, etc., and the upgraded contrast and brightness really shows through, as does the rich colour. You can really see the darn filters director Scott chose to inflict on the film in places – much like director Josh Logan did to ruin the otherwise-spectacular 1958 film of South Pacific. But at least they didn't mess with it digitally – via noise reduction, etc. – that I could see.

Bottom line: I think this Top Gun looks even better than it did in theatres so long ago.

The audio has been remixed into Dolby Atmos, and my 5.1 system loved it dumbed down to fit its capabilities. And you'll want to crank it during the flying scenes because, as with the 4K picture, this soundtrack is the bees' knees. It doesn't just excel in the flying sequences, of course, but they're the most dynamic. But even locations such as interior on board the aircraft carrier are recorded and presented beautifully, enveloping you with the atmosphere. Dialogue is clear and clean at all times.  

There are even a couple of decent extras on the 4K disc (though I'd prefer they use the disc's storage space up with video/audio info only, to ensure the best possible quality). There's "The Legacy of Top Gun," which is self explanatory, and "On Your Six – 30 years of Top Gun", as well as a commentary by "filmmakers and naval experts."

These extras are repeated on the accompanying Blu-ray (there's also a code in the box for a digital download), and augmented by extras from older home video releases. It's interesting stuff, though I was there for the audio and video.

This presentation did make me mildly interested in seeing the new Top Gun when it comes out, so I suppose it's mission accomplished as far as Paramount is concerned.

Thunder Zone…

Take Top Gun, remove the military component and instead focus the story on the world of stock car racing, and you have Days of Thunder, a movie that really isn't fit to shine Top Gun's shoes but which does at least feature exquisite audio and video as well as a nice look at a very young Nicole Kidman at the beginning of her North American acting career.

Cruise here is Cole Trickle, a hot shot race car driver who has issues with discipline – he's basically Maverick with a racing license instead of a pilot's license. Instead of the Russians with their MiGs, his nemesis here is other racing drivers, especially Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), who appears to be there mostly to ram Trickle into the outside walls of the big ovals on which they race.

I don't really follow NASCAR (I'm an Indycar fan), but I know there's some rubbing going on between cars in that series. I just had trouble suspending my disbelief for just how much and how hard the rubbing was – it seemed almost demolition derby-like rather than NASCAR, though that's probably just the typical Hollywoodization of a story.

The cast is great, though. Joining Cruise, Kidman and Rooker are the great Robert Duvall along with Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, Fred Thompson and John C. Reilly. All turn in good work.

So how's the 4K disc? Pretty darn good – probably better than the story actually deserves. It's much like Top Gun's, with beautiful resolution and detail and rich colours. Grain is very much in evidence – the movie does deliver a very film-like experience – and if the filter crap Scott used in Top Gun annoyed you you'll be annoyed by Days of Thunder as well. Can't blame the disc or the 4K transfer for that, though!

Audio isn't offered in Dolby Atmos, which seems odd considering Paramount allowed for a fine video upgrade over the Blu-ray with this 4K disc. Yet here, the audio is offered only in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Most people probably won't care a whit, since most people don't have Atmos capability yet anyway, and the TrueHD track is plenty dynamic and immersive anyway. But if you do have Atmos, you may feel a tad ripped off.

There's no Blu-ray in the package – just a digital download code – but there are a couple of minor extras on the 4K disc: an isolated musical score and "Filmmaker Focus: Days of Thunder," a short look at the film's gestation.

War of the Worlds

Days of Thunder may have been remembered better if there'd never been a Top Gun, which it seems to "emulate" a little too closely, though on the other hand if Top Gun hadn't been such a hit Days of Thunder might never have been green lighted. And of the three films in this review it's easily the weakest.

Infiltration instead of Invasion…

Cruise re-teamed with Steven Spielberg for 2005's War of the Worlds (after Minority Report), which is both an update and an homage to the 1954 George Pal film and the original H. G. Wells novel. I hated it the first time I saw it, but upon subsequent viewing came to really like it other than the rather silly idea of the aliens' war machines having been buried on earth – right below very populous urban environments – and waiting for the aliens to ride lightning bolts down to Mother Terra.

Yeah, all the workers who built subways, laid water and sewer pipes, and did all the other digging necessary in the building of a city, never noticed the machines lying dormant right below their feet.

It's too bad, because that bit of illogic really affected my suspension of disbelief and that made it harder getting into what's really a nifty alien invasion movie.

Cruise plays Ray Ferrier – like Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary in Spielberg's badly-aging Close Encounters of the Third Kind – he's Everyman here, a blue collar guy who lives on his own since his family split up and whose main joy is his classic Mustang. He isn't much of a father, which adds to the family's angst since he's custodian of his kids when All Heck Breaks Loose, though the situation also offers him more chances for growth and heroics in the Battle of the Planets.

Ray witnesses the Martians' first attack (which, in typically Spielberg fashion, is scary as hell, and features terrific special effects) and the spends the rest of the movie trying to get his kids to safety away from the city, heading for Boston, where his ex-wife (Miranda Otto who, unfortunately, is mostly wasted in a very small part), has gone with her new husband. Their journey takes them from one frightening situation to another as the invaders wreak havoc on the landscape and the people inhabiting it, grabbing the humans they don't blast so they can be used for a nefarious purpose we only learn of much later.  

The 4k disc looks fantastic, and that was a pleasant surprise. The movie has the same overall look that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used on such other collaborations as Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. It's a grainy, gritty and basically stylized look that can make it difficult to judge whether or not the ultra high def format is being used to its best advantage. Or such is the case on DVD and Blu-ray.

Yet as with the 4K disc of Saving Private Ryan, this 4K presentation is head and shoulders better than the Blu-ray – including the Blu-ray that comes with the 4K disc (there's a digital download code, too) in the package. Watch for incredible detail and colour depth Oh, the grittiness is still there, as is the film grain, but it has a more natural look to it and is a real eye opener. I love the picture quality here, even though I'd have preferred a more realistic, "pop off the screen" look like in some other movies (such as Dunkirk), especially ones that look as great as Gemini Man (though, to be fair, that particular film was shot at a high frame rate).

I guess it's an editorial decision and I'm going to have to disagree with Spielberg and Kaminski over their decisions on how the film looks.

Meanwhile, this one is very satisfying disc, indeed, all things considered. It takes us from quiet, personal family moments with lovely ambience to the unleashing of terror all around, and it does a beautiful job of it. Listen to the lightning strikes and then the unholy war cry emitted by the giant robot tripod after it unburies itself and you'll get the idea. It can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up!

There are even some decent extras in the package, though there's nothing that wasn't already on the original Blu-ray. All the extras are on the Blu-ray here, too (there's a digital download code in the package, too) so the whole 4K disc has been devoted to the movie itself, which in my never humble opinion is how it should be done.

It's a good selection of extras, though, and well worth seeing.   

If you're a Cruise fan, you'll probably enjoy all three of these films, whose 4K versions are definite and worthwhile upgrades from their previous video versions. If you're on a budget, it's probably safe to ignore Days of Thunder (easily the weakest of these entries), though even that film is still a fun trip through the home theatre.

Copyright 2020 Jim Bray
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