Bad CGI is usually a major problem for a high-octane blockbuster, but the limitations of digital effects actually made 1986’s Top Gun much better.
The bad CGI of 1986 forced Top Gun to pull off aerial stunt work for real – and massively improved the cult classic as a result. Top Gun’s production was not a smooth flight, but every problem the blockbuster overcame somehow ended up improving the finished movie. Top Gun producers may have been dismayed when a young hotshot director didn’t even meet with them before rejecting the project, but David Cronenberg turning down Top Gun turned out to be a blessing in disguise, clearing the runway for action auteur Tony Scott to hop in the cockpit instead.
In a similar reversal of fortunes, the sorry state of 1980s CGI meant the creators of Top Gun never had the option of faking the movie’s stunts using digital technology. This meant the high-risk maneuvers were carried out in real life and, as a result, the stunts in Top Gun have aged superbly, remaining some of the most impressive aerial acrobatics in cinema history. If Top Gun was produced in a later decade when CGI had become more advanced and commonplace, Tony Scott could reasonably have opted out of shooting real-life stunts, which would inevitably have made the end result less impressive (particularly with early CGI). Furthermore, the lack of CGI made hiring Tom Cruise, with his proclivity for doing stunts personally, all the more important, adding to the litany of reasons Cruise is perfect for Top Gun‘s starring role.
CGI Would’ve Ruined Top Gun
The Navy input into the Top Gun script prohibited Tony Scott’s crew from pulling off a spectacular midair collision, as this would have made the military institution look inept. As a result, Top Gun’s creators instead focused on aerial dogfights, stunt work, and impressive tricks for the movie’s action, all of which the production staged for real. Per a contributor to the Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun documentary, “The technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so you couldn’t do the CG work that the movie needed – it would have been enormously costly and, more importantly, it wouldn’t have looked as good.”
Decades later, Top Gun: Maverick repeated this same approach, using only supplemental CGI to augment real stunt work instead of relying entirely on computer artistry like many modern blockbusters would. This decision was understandable, as Top Gun franchise star Tom Cruise had become famous for performing his own stunts during the long gap between movies. The rapturous acclaim received by Top Gun: Maverick upon release proves the decision to focus on practical effects over CGI was a wise one, and even the expensive sequel would have struggled to impress with all-CGI action sequences. This only goes to show how the…