AW Kautzer's Film Review Film Ongoing Series

The Rock-a-Who: The Beauty and Failure of The Rocketeer during The Summer of ’91

The Rocketeer

Adam takes a deep dive look at the Summer that was 1991 and specifically the failure of The Rocketeer.

“The Rock-A-Who???” – Jennifer Connelly, The Rocketeer

Let us go back three decades to the 1990’s.  There were many No’s in the 90’s.  What kind of No’s do I mean.  Well… No social media.  No iPhones.  No Netflix.  Just land lines, SNES, AOL, Prodigy, Cable TV, VHS, Laserdiscs, and CDs.  Welcome to 1991 a/ka/ A Remote Time in Ancient History.

In the 90’s The Summer Movie season did not start in March.  Until the last decade in fact, it always began in May, specifically, on Memorial Day. weekend  Two films had been released.  Which for the time was very odd. You usually got one film a week for the summer.  Occasionally, you would get two, but never ones that were going after the same audience.  I remember that weekend, I had the choice of seeing either Hudson Hawk or Backdraft.  Not both, only one film.  For a thirteen-year-old film-crazed geek this was the equivalent of Sophie’s Choice.

I still feel that I made the right choice:  Hudson Hawk.  I did see Backdraft a few weeks later.  Each are films that were not the success the studios wanted.  Over the years though, each has become a cornerstone for geeks of a certain age.  Hudson Hawk is hubris, ego and cocaine mixed together that signaled the death of the 1980’s.  It’s brilliant but in a car accident way when a superstar thinks his wine cooler persona should star in a film. Backdraft is a great bit of pulpy pop entertainment that gets weighted down by its own self importance.  Ron Howard directs Backdraft not as the awesome pulp action pot boiler it is but as awards bait that will net him his OSCAR. The film works because of the stellar performances by Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Scott Glenn, and the utterly forgotten (and missed) JT Walsh.

The film I was most excited for in the Summer of ’91 was Disney’s entry into Blockbusterdom:  The Rocketeer.  Since I was a kid I’ve loved period piece adventure films. Raiders of the Lost Ark, is one of my favorite films.  Unlike many of my fellow bloggers, Star Wars was the film that rewired them.  I love Star Wars, yes. What kid didn’t?  The film that changed me, that made me want to know who “made this” was Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It rewired me, made me crazy for any kind of adventure film. I begged my parents for weeks… WEEKS to let me see Jake Speed.  Yes.  I will say that again.  Begged.  Them.  To.  See.  Jake.  Speed.  Anything that was an adventure film, if it took place in the 1930s – 1940s, even better.  Thirty seven years after my first encounter with Raiders, and I’m still a sucker for any period adventure story.  I’ll give anything a shot in that genre. All of that to say, I was wired to love The Rocketeer.


22-minutes of old school Behind-The-Scenes Excitement circa 1991

I remember seeing the art deco poster the Christmas before while I was seeing Home Alone.  The Rocketeer was a film that I had seen named in the Starlog’s Coming Soon Section.  There was nothing on the film, just a poster and that name.  I had no idea what it was but knew I wanted to see it.  The poster just confirmed that.  Remember, in ’91 there were no smart phones, the internet barely existed.  We got all of our geeky information from Starlog, Fangoria, Famous Movie Monsters, Cinefex, Premiere Magazine and occasionally a trailer released to Entertainment Tonight.

The week it opened my mother planned that my friends and I would see the film.  One of the few things that my mother did right was making movies special events.  To pull back on this a bit, Disney had acquired the El Capitan.  They spent millions of dollars restoring the theater to its original glory.  They announced that the first film to run at the theater was to be The Rocketeer.  As soon as it was announced, my mother purchased tickets for the very first showing.  Which she did not tell me until the week before the release.  Needless to say, I had a major freakout moment.

There’s an earnestness in The Rocketeer that, even back in 1991, was hard to swallow for an audience.  It’s not a surprise that one of the biggest hits of this particular Summer was about robots attempting to kill off humanity.  If you were the right age, and you were raised on specific types of stories, you might have fallen in love with this movie.  The Rocketeer is not glib or sarcastic in any way.  Director Joe Johnston created a film much like the era it was set in:  innocent, hopeful throughout.  It is lacking the snark or tongue-in-cheek wryness that would have stopped the film dead in its tracks.  Few films have a sense of play that The Rocketeer has at its core.  It’s a feel good movie through and through.

The score by James Horner was fantastic.  I think Horner has never done anything better, even his Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan score pales in comparison.  Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly are the right amount of goofy and cheesy to be the best pair to take on the roles of Cliff and Jenny, our hero/heroine.  Timothy Dalton’s performance as a Clark Gable-type Golden Era Hollywood Star may be one of the more underrated performances of the early 90’s.  Alan Arkin gives a spot-on performance as Peevy, father figure to Cliff a/k/a The Rocketeer.  Or the delectable Howard Hughes by way of Dudley Do-Right that Terry O’Quinn pulls off (he has the best line of the entire film).  Or Paul Servino doing the PG version of what he was doing in R-Rated Films at the time:  playing a Mobster.  To the goofy Harrison Ford style delivery that Bill Campbell brings to Cliff.  And last but certainly not least…. Jennifer Connelly being just about the dream girl of every American Male between the ages of birth and death.  Everything in the film’s running time is designed for your personal enjoyment.


The Late James Horner, circa 1991, discussing what would come to be his best score.

The first appearance of Cliff as The Rocketeer is everything you would want from a film that’s called Superman.  The moment that Cliff straps on the jet pack and the music swells, you’re either in for the ride or you have completely tuned out.  In the El Capitan in the Summer of ’91, it felt like everyone was in for the ride.  The fun part of the scene is watching how much Cliff fumbles his way through the set piece.  He’s barely able to save himself and his friend from certain doom.  But when Cliff does succeed and he gets that swelling James Horner score… it’s perfection.  Only Hiyazo Miyazaki has ever gotten the fancifulness of flight better than Johnston and the Effects Team at ILM.  They eschew the reality of flight for beauty and grandeur and artistry of flight.  That choice only enhances the flight effects. Johnston was one of the effects/designer kids (he was literally 19 or 20, so kid does apply) that worked on Star Wars (1977) and Empire Strikes Back (1980).  Years of effects work gave Johnston a keen understanding of what would hold up.  The work, though a bit dated, still has a charm that isn’t as bad as some of the effects in other films of the era.

Cliff isn’t a superhero, he isn’t even Indiana Jones, he’s just a normal guy who’s a good, albeit reckless, pilot.  Johnston and Co. are not afraid to show that Cliff goes from a “knuckle head” of a pilot to being reasonably competent hero as The Rocketeer.  When the film begins Cliff is a selfish jerk; he’s forgetful, selfish, bullheaded, a liar, and worst of all: arrogant.  If anything, he’s the last person you would want to have this jet pack.  Before he becomes The Rocketeer, we see him systematically broken down to the point where he has become a literal Clown for the Air Rodeo.

The beauty of the script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is the opening 30 minutes never feels like some sort of Hero’s Journey.  Often times Event/Super Hero films feel the need to shoehorn Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” into an equation that never needed it in the first place.  Bilson and De Meo show a guy and his friend/father figure have a bad run of luck that forces them to swallow their pride. It’s never made a symbol or directed with the importance of the story of Jesus.  Many Superhero films or big budget Summer Event Films show this fall of our hero like it was the most important thing EVER TO BE FILMED.  Johnston here doesn’t hinge everything on these moments. He plays the every day kitchen sink drama of the situations.

Even though The Rocketeer is an adaptation of a source material, the film is not slavish in any way to that material.  A true adaptation isn’t slavish to the source material.  It allows the film to be an entity unto itself away from said material.  Much of what we see nowadays is either strict dogmatic adherence to the material or, a complete redesign only using the barest of sketches from the original source.  One of the many reasons I do love The Rocketeer is that it is stands on its own as a film without requiring any prior knowledge of the material from the audience.  Though reading the source material enhances the experience in a way that would never distract from anyone going in cold.

Bilson and De Meo write and Johnston directs The Rocketeer as the best Superman/Indiana Jones movie that isn’t a Superman/Indiana Jones movie.  I would go as far as to say that The Rocketeer is better than any Superman film released.  Yes, even the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie.  That’s how good this film really is.  Though, I won’t say that The Rocketeer is better than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The film is designed to not be laughed at but laughed with.  There is a huge distinction.  The film is smart enough to know what it’s doing and how it’s being done.  Johnston and Co. also realize that Summer films are suppose to be light on their feet.  They’re supposed to be goofy. Not everything has to be dour and Nolan-esque.  Filmmakers have gotten so concerned with trilogies.  The business of Summer Event Films being taken so seriously has taken so much joy out of Summer films.  The Rocketeer has it’s issues, but it never attempts to be self important or more than what it is.


Bryan Adams in 1991 was the harbinger of Box Office Doom for the Rocketeer

As I left the theater that fateful Summer afternoon, I was convinced that I could hold out for three years.  Three years from that point would be 1994.  I would be sixteen years old.  I could wait out until the next adventure of The Rocketeer.  You’re probably laughing at thirteen year old Adam.  We all know there isn’t a The Rocketeer vs. The Sky Pirates or The Rocketeer and The Emerald Monkey.  It was a flop.  Not a huge one.  But a movie that did not make the money they had expected it to.  The films that beat it that weekend?  Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and City Slickers.

Two films that I will dare you to tell me are better films than The Rocketeer.  They are not but that’s the way that the film landscape falls.  City Slickers the modern day equivalent of Grown Ups with Billy Crystal and his friends in place of Sandler and his friends.  Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a huge hit because everyone loved Kevin Costner after winning a gaggle of Oscars for Dances with Wolves.  Who didn’t loved Costner at that point in his career?  That damn Bryan Adams song didn’t hurt the film either.


The nail in The Rocketeer's coffin; James Cameron's T2: Judgement Day

A week after that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released to huge Box Office numbers and reigned supreme until the Summer’s end.  There was no way with these movies playing that The Rocketeer stood a chance.  It was buried.  Filed under the same shelf that The Black Hole, Condorman and Tron were filed in.  Failed entries into Blockbusterdom, for Disney’s Live Action Arm, which would not really get it’s bearings until Simpson/Bruckheimer joined the studio in a few years.  It seems fitting a smaller innocent film would be crushed by two crass Star vehicles and a mega budgeted sequel to an existing property.  These are two of the types of films that would eventually dominate the Summer Movie Season (along with the recent rise of the Super Hero film).


The Legacy of Fandom carries on; Adam Savage fan of The Rocketeer has built the X-3 Jetpack!!!!

Like most Summer Movie disasters, it was quietly released on home video later in 1992.  Disney, ashamed that the product they produced was a dud, did not announce the film with any sort of the fervor they would have with their supposed “Classics”.  There is a happy ending to the story of The Rocketeer.  Enough time has passed and enough people have seen the film on HBO, ABC Family, VHS and DVD that it’s gained a bit of cult fandom.  So much so, for the 20th anniversary they held a special screening of the film at the El Capitan and released a new home video version.

Many Summer Event Films rightly deserve to be forgotten when they fail at the box office.  There are a few that fail because they were unable to find an audience in the crowded summer season.  The Rocketeer is one of the exceptions.  A good film that never found its audience during its theatrical run.  Over the past twenty years it has slowly found its audience, which is the best sort of ending that an initial failure could ask for.

The Rocketeer is available on Blu-Ray from Disney Home Video.

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