The Rocketeer (1991 film)

Posted: July 10, 2014 in Comico, Dark Horse, Eclipse, IDW, Rocketeer

Ah, The Rocketeer, one of the noblist of noble failures. I remember seeing this in the theatre when I was in first grade and being absolutely blown away by it. I ran around the front yard with a backpack hanging off of me and a bucket on my head re-enacted my favorite scenes. Sadly, my enthusiasm for the film faded quickly, not unlike the general public’s opinion at the time.

Based on a comic from the early 80’s, this is pure, undiluted adventure. The entire movie feels like one of those awesome pulp novels from the 30’s and 40’s. You know the ones. I mean, just look at the Art Deco inspired advertising campaign. It really seems like everyone involved with this film, all the way down to the marketing department, totally understood what it was about and how it should look and feel. And that love is palpable.

This is the story of pilot Cliff Secord who discovers a jet pack that has been left in his hanger by some criminals on the run. After a few test runs, he eventually suits up as the titular hero to rescue a pilot in a malfunctioning plane at an airshow. This new-found device brings him into opposition with a high-profile actor/Nazi sympathizer (played by then-Bond Timothy Dalton) and the mob. The film ends with a fiery battle atop a zeppelin flying over the Hollywood hills. Few movies can claim to have as much excitement and pure fun as this one. As mentioned before, it seemed like everyone understood what they were making and united for this singular vision.

TRIVIA: In the comic, the jetpack was designed by Doc Savage.
Due to rights issues, the movie changed its creator to Howard Hughes

Sadly, the only people who didn’t seem to get it were the audience members. The budget for this film was $42 million, which wasn’t anything to sneeze at back then. When it was released in the summer of 1991, it made a total of $46.6 million. Apparently there was only room for one action movie at the box office that summer, and that film was T2: Judgement Day. And so, The Rocketeer was left out in the cold. With its squalid box office died the chances of the sequel, Cliff’s New York Adventure.

One of the interesting changes made to the story is the role of Cliff’s lounge-singer girlfriend, Jenny. In the comic, her name isn’t Jenny, it’s Betty…as in Betty Page…as in fetish model Bettie Page. Naturally, Disney made the choice to alter the character. Having their female lead engage in S&M while being photographed isn’t as marketable as seeing her sing in a glitzy night-club while wearing an elegant ball gown. The change is understandable (It’s Disney after all) but it would have been interesting to see such a sexually free female lead in an adventure movie in the early 90’s. That would be quite ahead of its time. Hell, that’s ahead of OUR time. What’s interesting to me, is that they gave her the same first name as the actress portraying her, Jennifer Connelly. So even though her name’s been changed, both characters share something with a real person connected to them.

Pictured: Pragmatic Adaptationism

The Rocketeer is also an important film, technically speaking. The last act features an extended sequence set aboard a zeppelin. To get the effect that the entire set was moving and vibrating (without actually shaking the hell out of their blimp interior) director Joe Johnston and his crew developed a new camera rig that they named “Shaky Cam”. This allowed for convincing movement from the camera without actually needing to manipulate it. Shaky Cam had been used as a technique in film before, but this was the first rig built specifically for it. Ironically, when the film was released on home video, the effect didn’t transfer well to the smaller screen and was steadied. With the new ease of use for Shaky Cam, it became incredibly popular. It’s odd to think that films like Colverfield, The Bourne Supremacy and 28 Weeks Later owe so much to The Rocketeer.

I’m heartened to see that in recent years, this film has developed a new-found appreciation from fans. Being a cult classic is preferable to being forgotten forever. And in many ways it’s better than being an outright hit. Cult films tend to have a staying power that isn’t found in most blockbusters. This is also one of the rare exceptions where a film’s latter-day popularity lead to a resurrection of the series on which it’s based. The Rocketeer comic had been dead since about 1995 (With only sporadic publication before that in 1983 and 1989) when, in 2009 IDW comics resurrected the character and has published regular ongoing and mini-series since then. The success of these series has lead to crossovers, action figures and even talk of a rebooted film franchise from Disney. Maybe this time, movie audiences will be ready to see Cliff soar again.

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