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Feature


In Los Angeles, in 1938, Stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is testing a Gee Bee Racer aircraft when he accidentally collides with a high-speed car chase between FBI agents and mob thugs. His craft is damaged by gunfire, and he crashes. Later, while he and his mechanic A. ‘Peevy’ Peabody (Alan Arkin) are cutting their losses, Cliff discovers that the arrested thug hid a mysterious rocket pack in a biplane in their hanger. Excited, the duo tests the rocket, and discovers for certain that it is intended for human use. Strapped for cash following the accident, Cliff suggests they use the rocket in a new stunt show. Meanwhile, the rocket’s intended recipient, actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) tries to track down his missing contraband. His search leads him to an up and coming young actress named Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), who just so happens to be Cliff’s girlfriend.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray
When I heard that Joe Johnston had been hired to direct Marvel’s Captain America, I cocked an eyebrow and asked, ‘The guy that made Jumanji and Jurassic Park III?’. ‘Well, yes.’, said the Internet, ‘But he was also the guy that made that brilliant flop of a period comic book film called The Rocketeer.’ And just like that, my fears were all averted. The Rocketeer isn’t a perfect film, but it’s brimming with nostalgia, rich with Art Deco imagery, and its gigantic heart is nearly impossible to resist – all elements required for a satisfying Captain America adaptation. The source material is often mistaken for an actual ‘30s serial, or Golden Age comic (I know I assumed as such), but it’s actually based on an equally nostalgic ‘80s comic created by influential fantasy artist Dave Stevens. I’ve never read an issue, but I’ve heard Stevens went so far in his homage that he actually included characters from Doc Savage and The Shadow. Though generally considered a financial flop, I feel like The Rocketeer had a solid influence on pop culture, and likely Bruce Timm when he put together the brilliant Batman the Animated Series a few years later (I also recall Dick Tracy and Tim Burton’s Batman had a pretty obvious influence, and the Fleischer Studios Superman was the largest influence). Hollywood didn’t give up on ‘30s serial nostalgia in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s despite The Rocketeer’s rocky reception (and who wouldn’t considering the enduring popularity of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series), and soon saw Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow and Simon Wincer’s The Phantom.

Johnston’s ability to capture ‘gee gosh’ wonder without devolving into the mawkish is high among The Rocketeer’s finest qualities. At times, the film acts to remind us why the director was once in line to wear Spielberg’s family film crown. 20 years after my first time seeing the film the broad stroke comedy doesn’t really make me laugh anymore, but it’s still in line with the ideal period style, and I can’t accuse Johnston of losing control of the film’s tone at any point.  Despite his ILM pedigree, I’ve always found Johnston’s work with digital effects less than satisfying ( Jumanji and Jurassic Park III feature down right ugly effects, though Captain America covered many of its shortcomings through style), but when saddled with the delightful limitations of practical effects (the kind he himself created before becoming a full-fledged director) he excels. Sure, it’s easy to see the misalignments on the mattes, but the dynamic qualities of the action here stands-up to even frenetic modern standards, and oozes vintage Spielberg. There’s a bit of fat that could’ve probably been trimmed throughout the film, the middle act sags most notably, and the slightly dated PG tone dulls the danger a bit, but the final act is a nice mix of idealistic romance, rollicking Saturday morning serial, and some incredibly iconographic images.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray
The cast is overflowing with the great character actors including Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes (shadows of Howard Stark in Captain America), Paul Sorvino, Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, Eddie Jones, William Sanderson (who has such a small role I suspect much of his performance was cut), Margo Martindale and Clint Howard. There’s a bit of a balance issue found in the major performances, though this, along with the pacing issues can be attributed to the old fashion quality of the story (it feels like Johnston isn’t sure how cheesy he can go without alienating his viewers). Still, the protagonists tend to be slightly lifeless, while villains are slightly too cartoonish. Timothy Dalton is the one actor that finds his way through the mess without losing control. Jennifer Connelly, who’s cleavage I equate with the awakening of my interest in the fairer sex, actually gets much better as she’s given more to do over the last act, but I find Alan Arkin surprisingly flat upon this revisit, despite the fact he gets all the best lines. Billy Campbell (who is, in fact, related to Bruce, but only barely) is a hard read. He’s nearly perfect in this role, but he also shows hints of being a generally boring actor, which may explain his sad lack of a big name career.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray

Video


The Rocketeer has always enjoyed a cult following, but Disney had never taken advantage of that cult, and here in the US they dumped it on DVD with a non-anamorphic, 2.35:1 transfer. Though this Blu-ray release still feels like a dump (especially following Johnston’s success with Captain America), but it is in 1080p, so fans should probably thank the Mouse House for small favours. The short story is that this is a top notch transfer with only minor issues, most of which can be easily attributed to the shortcomings of the 35mm format. Details are plenty sharp, sharp enough to notice the brush finish on Cliff’s helmet in close-up, and to appreciate the fine details of Sinclair’s ridiculous house. There are some outrageously comic-booky palettes peppered throughout the film, but for the most part Johnston and cinematographer Hiro Narita deal in muted, brown pallets, obviously meant to evoke a period look. Red and yellow elements tend to pop (look at Jennifer Connelly’s pretty red lips), while deep blues and greens sit nicely with a rich quality. Contrast is pretty tight, and black levels are clean (look at Jennifer Connelly’s pretty hair!), though grain pretty clearly increases when lighting levels are less intense. Overall grain is a bit up and down. Special effects shots appear to be the most common cause, but there are some sequences that appear grainier for no real good reason, and these sequences also have a bit of shutter effect as well. Compression artefacts appear every so often in the form of minor edge haloes and slight low-level noise in some of the warmer background browns.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray

Audio


I don’t think The Rocketeer was produced in 5.1 sound (I’m pretty sure there was no such thing at the time), but the original surround tracks certainly lend themselves to the 5.1 treatment, presented here in the form of an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix. This isn’t an overfilled mix, and some scenes are a little light on the kind of ambience newer films produce, but there’s a whole lot of directional effects and strong spatial representation. The vast majority of the directional effects work throughout the front three channels (and are sometimes a bit overdone for the sake of impact), but the rear channels exhibit a fair amount of discreet sound as well. Explosions are plenty aggressive, and between mass destruction and bullet hits the LFE gets a varied workout. I have some minor quibbles with the consistency of some of the dialogue, which is largely clear, but occasionally volume levels dip, and there’s a specifically post-production sound to some of the performances, specifically sections of Connelly’s performance. If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that James Horner’s original score is positively magical, and thanks to the lack of compression on this track the music sounds spectacular. The quality of the instrumental sound is wonderfully rich, the brass is sharp without any noticeable distortion even on the loudest notes, and the string bass has a deep throb that doesn’t warble or overwhelm the other elements.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray

Extras


A trailer. What the hell, Disney?

Overall


I’m not sure if The Rocketeer will survive the longer test of time its cult following has ensured it, but it’s a uniquely successful movie given its tone and release era. I enjoyed October Sky and Captain America: The First Avenger, but all in all this and Honey I Shrunk the Kids are probably in running as Johnston’s best film, or at least the two films I’ll most attribute to his particular talents. Disney is nice to have remastered the film for Blu-ray release, but are kind of sticking it to fans by not including any substantial extra material, which is too bad. Definitely worth the upgrade for fans unsatisfied with generally unsatisfying DVD releases, however lacking the extras may sting.

 Rocketeer DVD
 Rocketeer Blu-ray

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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