The Hype: The Rocketeer

Gunnar Bio PicFrom its inception, The Rocketeer had everything stacked against it.

The liner notes for Disney’s 1991 action picture read like a handbook of everything one should avoid while making a film. Writers were fired and subsequently rehired on multiple occasions. Rumors of tension between the studio and director Joe Johnston began to bubble as Johnston turned down Johnny Depp, Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell, Dennis Quaid, and Emilio Estevez in favor of superunknown actor Billy Campbell for the role of leading man Cliff Secord. A sign that no one above the director knew what to make of the finished picture, the film continuously fluctuated between being designated a Touchstone Picture or a Disney Picture through its entire shaky release, prompting many moviegoers to avoid the mysteriously labeled film altogether. If that wasn’t enough to send The Rocketeer into a fatal tailspin, two weeks after The Rocketeer premiered, James Cameron released his apocalyptic epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day.



As far as its legacy is concerned, The Rocketeer’s troubles are enough to turn its tailspin into a lethal nosedive. Compared to the digitally constructed, easily digestible superhero movies that have become the norm, The Rocketeer stands as a complex, nostalgic experiment that fails on every conventional level. Campbell’s version of Cliff Secord is bumbling and impulsive. The plot is slow and a little convoluted. The action doesn’t really start until almost an hour into the film. There are no skyscrapers toppling into each other like lethal dominoes (Man of Steel), hundreds of robots pulverized in mere minutes (Avengers: Age of Ultron), or brilliant explosions flaring frantically and indiscernibly across the screen (too many to list, so let’s just say “2015”). These are all staples of the modern action genre, carefully crafted over time by studious producers who quickly recognized that earth-shattering destruction and excessive explosions can please just about everybody (read: profit).   

Safe to say, The Rocketeer is not for everyone, but that’s part of what makes the film such a charming and impressive work of art. Beyond the hyperactive Marvel Cinematic Universe, away from the brooding world of Nolan’s Batman, and far, far from the destructive mess of whatever the hell Snyder is doing, there lies a place steeped in the sepia tones of the Golden Age of Superheroes. It is a land that lovingly remembers the radio serials that would form the blueprint for superheroes for generations to come, where bad guys are armed with simple tommy guns, and creativity and patriotism (and well-choreographed haymakers) are enough to stop the forces of evil and save the day.

To reach the incredible heights that early superheroes achieved, reality was often stretched to its breaking point, and in this The Rocketeer is no different. But what The Rocketeer lacks in stern reality, it more than makes up for in idealistic adventure, a perfectly fitting homage to the formulas that fueled heroes like The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and The Green Hornet. Despite the gorgeous set pieces, lovingly rendered costumes, and simple premise, The Rocketeer isn’t trying to convince us that it IS real, it’s asking us: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if this WAS real?!?” The Rocketeer doesn’t speak to the part of us that loves to shove our thick glasses up our sweaty noses and point out how gravity works, it speaks to the part of us that ‘flew’ around our house when we were three years old, the-rocketeer-05soaring and diving and kicking evil people in the face, boundaries and limits and physics melting around us because screw science, we could fly.

Today, social media practically demands that we scrutinize every detail of every movie all the time forever, because there’s no better way to feel like your voice is being heard than by shouting, and no easier way to shout than to douse yourself in mock outrage over trivial details. For all of these hell-spawn amateur movie detectives, The Rocketeer’s anachronistic, fantastical narrative is sure to fail. It is very easy to point out little flaws in this film: the g-force resistant gum, the physically impossible aerials, and the superfluous Nazis (I’m so happy I just got to type that). But to ridicule The Rocketeer for its heavy reliance on wondrous fantasy is to miss the point completely. One look at our protagonist and common sense will tell you that the rocket would light his ass on fire faster than a double-crossed Daenerys. Who would want to see a movie with such a childish concept?

But this idealism is what makes The Rocketeer such an exhilarating pleasure. It’s what turns Howard Hughes from an eccentric recluse into an innovative patriot. It’s what twists and contorts evil henchman Lothar’s face into an acromegalic unreality. It’s what causes mobsters to turn on Nazis without hesitation, keeps the rocket intact after bullets pierced through it, and portrays Errol Flynn-the-rocketeer-02copycat Neville Sinclair (played by a superb Timothy Dalton) as a suave, swashbuckling German spy. Idealism, that optimistic evolution of childhood wonder, is what propels The Rocketeer far above the clouds, beyond the stratosphere, and into the realms and regions that will grace the dreams of the children of this world for generations to come. For this, The Rocketeer soars.

Rotten Tomatoes: 61%

Box Office: Hard to tell due to the wild promotional spending, but negative millions.

Verdict: When you’re ready to fly back into the whimsical worlds of your childhood, let this film be your first stop.