Comment: Sometimes you need a big screen for a good movie

The new ‘Top Gun’ sequel is setting box office records, raising hopes Americans might return to theaters.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

The super attendance numbers for “Top Gun: Maverick” has theater owners flying at Mach 10. The sequel to 1986’s “Top Gun,” the action picture scored the biggest opening ever for the Memorial Day weekend. A now-59-year-old Tom Cruise is back as the ace pilot, which may help account for another piece of good news for the industry. Over half the box office totals were people over 35, the very demographic that abandoned theaters during the covid-19 plague.

Are movie theaters coming back from the dead, or was this a one-off? I’d like to think the former because so much of our communal culture has collapsed under the assault of tiny private screens.

Movie theaters are what sociologists call “third places,” hangouts that are not the home or work. Bookstores and coffee shops are examples of third places. Many bookstores are struggling to survive, and Starbucks can do only so much.

After about two years of not entering a movie theater, your writer and a companion went through those doors. During that absence, I had installed a bigger TV at home and subscribed to a bunch of streaming channels.

And so why did I leave the comforts of my couch and curated snacks to pay for a seat owned by others and with strangers all around? Why aside from all those vaccinations, that is?

The answer is simple. I wanted to get out of the frigging house.

There was the added incentive of seeing something worthwhile that was only playing in theaters and required a screen larger than even my new 57-inch Sony. “Top Gun: Maverick” needed a screen bigger than the side of my house.

The movie served various audiences. It had the brain-splitting action scenes, which my companion craves; and for me, characters with tormented relationships. Sure, I could guess how they all would end, but at least one could watch the father-son, former-lover and other tensions go through the paces.

One didn’t mind the patriotism. “Top Gun: Maverick” was a hymn to the Navy, as was the original. The top brass might err in judgement, but they meant to do right and fixed their mistakes.

The pilots were all smart as well as brave. And though the crews were diverse by race, ethnicity and gender, the moviemakers spared us conflict along those lines.

But let’s put in a good word for the portrayal of the women. Actress Jennifer Connelly, Tom Cruise’s perpetual love interest, is allowed to display a hint of crow’s feet around her eyes. (Thirty-six years have passed since the original, after all.) Both Connelly and Monica Barbaro as a female pilot are portrayed as serious women in flats. Not a butt-lift in sight.

Maverick could be counted on to break the rules, but his transgressions were never such to get him kicked out. And although the pilots partied hardy at their bar while some grudges simmered in the background, no one waved fists, much less knives or guns. They sang “Great Balls of Fire” around the piano.

The big existential question for the theater owners is whether they can get their older audiences back with other movies. For a hint of an answer, I asked my companion why he wanted to go out to see “Top Gun: Maverick.”

His answer — “because we couldn’t stream it” — was not entirely encouraging. But he did add: “It was also sorta a night out. Not a night out but an excursion.”

OK. We don’t really know whether big movies with a touch of IQ will bring in audiences the theaters need. Let’s just say the coming attractions were doing their bit. “Jurassic World: Dominion,” here we come.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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