There are few things worse than the “It was all a dream” plot twist. It’s lazy, and tired, and really only used when creatives have exhausted every possible scenario. This, mind you, is different from the worthy plot twists that have powered some of the best films from our lifetime, be it Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, Parasite, or Chinatown. They had narrative twists that had us rethinking everything that we watched. But a recent fan theory has us reconsidering the blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, and even director Joseph Kosinski has a few things to say about it.
Legacy sequels are the rage in Hollywood, but few have been as successful as Top Gun: Maverick, a long-gestating follow up to Tony Scott’s iconic flight thriller Top Gun, with Tom Cruise in the lead. Cruise had been circling a Top Gun sequel for years, but never landed on a worthy script until they cracked the story that led to Top Gun: Maverick. The sequel worked so well that we’re already hearing news about Top Gun 3, though such a sequel definitely wouldn’t be able to happen if the popular fan theory were true. Is it? Let’s get into the theory, and then talk about Joseph Kosinski’s comments on it after the fact.
The Top Gun: Maverick Fan Theory
You guys remember how Top Gun: Maverick opened, right? We catch up with our beloved Pete “Maverick” Mitchell on the day he’s forced to test pilot a hypersonic scramjet, proving it’s capable of reaching Mach 10 before his government superiors shut his program down. Even when Maverick reaches Mach 10, he pushes the test a little bit too far, and crashes to craft.
This leads to a very funny scene where Maverick stumbles into a roadside diner, chugs a glass of water, and asks a little boy where he is:
Hilarious. However, what if that moment never really happened. According to the Top Gun: Maverick fan theory, Tom Cruise’s character died in the scramjet crash. And everything that happened after the crash was a death dream. They say right before you die, your entire life flashes before your eyes. So what if Pete Mitchell saw the life he wished he had, then bit the dust?
If you think about the remainder of Top Gun: Maverick through this lens, then a number of the narrative threads take on new meaning. There is an entire redemption arc to Maverick that’s reminiscent of the things someone on their death bed might imagine. Pete is able to return to Top Gun, the school that housed his greatest professional glories. He rekindles relationships with Penny (Jennifer Connelly) and Iceman (Val Kilmer). He even mends the fence with Rooster (Miles Teller), son of his former co-pilot and the one person he feels he’s wronged the most.
It’s a movie filled with high-flying action… and atonement. Said that way, you can see how people wanting to believe that Maverick died in the movie’s opening flight have evidence and proof that could back their theory.
So, what does the film’s director have to say about it?
Does The Director Agree With The Theory?
In a short answer, no, Joseph Kosinski doesn’t really give credence to the theory that Pete Mitchell dies in Top Gun: Maverick, and the bulk of the movie is a death dream. The few times that Kosinski has addressed the theory, he leaves it open to interpretation, not wanting to completely shut down the conversation. And during a recent conversation with Josh Horowitz on the Happy Sad Confused podcast, the director said that in the early script phases, they did plan to follow Maverick in free fall, showing him re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. You know Cruise would have been up for shooting that practically.
Kosinski doesn’t want to end the conversation, however, as he tells Horowitz:
I love it. Film is meant to be interpreted. I love that there's multiple ways to read it. It's, you know, hopefully it's a piece of art meant to be interpreted, and I love people reading those things into it. It's like The Big Lebowski Theory that Donnie's not really there so, no, I welcome that.
No filmmaker should want to extinguish active commentary about their work. Unless it’s patently false and detrimental to the cause. But in the case of the Maverick’s Dead theory, Joseph Kosinski seems to be entertained by the fact that people can watch his well-reviewed film and take something as wild as this away from the story.
We’ll have a long way to wait until Top Gun 3 happens (if it happens at all), but Tom Cruise has other films on the way including the next Mission: Impossible, one of many upcoming 2024 movies we have on our radar.