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29 June 2022

From Top Gun to Jurassic World: blockbuster cinema is back!

The films of the summer season used to seem formulaic and tedious. This year, everything has changed.

By Pippa Bailey

Until June there was only one film that I had enjoyed so much on first viewing that I returned to the cinema the following night for a repeat. That film was Baby Driver, the most joyous pairing of killer soundtrack and fast cars since my teenage boyfriend and I “sped” (at 35mph) around the streets of Zone 6 in his tiny red Ford Fiesta while listening to Muse. To a suburban schoolgirl who couldn’t drive, there was nothing more exotic than a suburban schoolboy who could. (At the opposite end of the scale, the only film I have walked out of the cinema midway through was Wonder Woman; having checked my watch after an hour and a half, I decided I couldn’t take another 40 minutes of right-on female empowerment and vaguely German villains.)

Now, the list of films I have watched on the big screen two nights in a row totals three: Baby Driver, Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion. I don’t wish to imply that they are equal in merit – the last certainly isn’t – but, after all those months of trying to recreate the cinema experience on my £50-from-Gumtree TV, the sheer scale of it all was intoxicating.

I go to the cinema alone quite happily, and have done since my early twenties, but when Top Gun was preceded by trailers for Dominion, Thor: Love and Thunder and the seventh Mission: Impossible, I longed for a companion to whom I could turn and feverishly whisper: cinema is back! The numbers agree. Top Gun: Maverick is the biggest box office hit of 2022, taking $1bn so far, while Dominion has racked up a few hundred million, and Baz Luhrmann’s first film in nine years, Elvis, is doing well also.

Before the pandemic, I frequented my local Odeon about once a week. (I can afford to indulge in such a manner because I have a Limitless card, and so it costs me no more or less if I go to every screening listed on a given day or not at all.) I went more often in the winter, a little less in the summer – not because I’m against sitting in a cold, dark room while everyone else has The Time Of Their Life burning only one shoulder at barbecues, but because I lived in anticipation of the first signs of awards season come November. Blockbuster summer I mostly found formulaic and tedious. This year, though, everything has changed.

I won’t bother recounting the plot of Top Gun, because it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be: ludicrous, sentimental and ultimately irrelevant. The film is an advert for Tom Cruise – his relentless smile (the crooked teeth of the original brought into line in the intervening years, I imagine, purely by the forces of Hollywood), his gonzo stunts, his cool when dangling upside down. Because the actors really were up in the sky while filming those aerial antics – even if the planes were being flown by someone else – and the result is at once fantastical and visceral, Cruise’s face warped by G-force. It is also, unavoidably, an advert for the thrusting male hubris of Reaganite America.

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But mostly, it’s an advert for cinema. In my second viewing, the man in front of me literally punched the air when wheels hit aircraft carrier, and I admired his abandon. If I stopped smiling at any point – and if I did, it would only have been to jig with tension, as though my doing so could somehow inch the joystick further forward – I don’t remember it.

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Jurassic World: Dominion is undoubtedly a weaker film – a soullessly familiar repeat of earlier iterations. But who doesn’t want to brace themselves as black undergrowth rustles… ominously; puddled ground trembles… ominously; amber eyes flick open… ominously? Jeff Goldblum remains thankfully and spectacularly odd, words tripping from his tongue as if each was experimental and entirely new to him; he counteracts Chris Pratt’s Joey Tribbiani-style smell-the-fart acting. It was enough of a reminder of what cinema can be – senses battered by sound and spectacle and money – that I returned for more.

Elvis didn’t quite make it into the two-night streak – partly because the evening after my first viewing I was working late sending the New Statesman to press, and partly because it’s two hours 40 minutes long, and feels it. I am no great fan of Luhrmann’s brash, flamboyant styling, but bombastic sparkle aside, Elvis is a solid biopic made transcendent by Austin Butler’s performance. His Elvis isn’t just a faithful depiction; it is physically (so sweaty!) and emotionally febrile, and – the swivelling hips, the screaming girls – decidedly horny. Plus, Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy Tom Hanks is downright vile in a fat suit and a hammy accent as Elvis’s manager, the slimy Colonel Tom Parker – delectable. 

It is a relief to me for the internal story I am forever writing and rewriting about myself to be subsumed in one far greater, louder, more perilous. In that suspended place halfway between fantasy and reality as I amble home along Holloway Road, I am quieted and happiest – and, really, it is this for which I return, two nights in a row. There are some things Netflix can’t replace.

[See also: The Princess review: a radical new take on the familiar story of Diana Spencer]

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