The failure of The Rocketeer to become the monster summer hit Disney had hoped for might seem easy to figure: no stars, blah title, cryptic poster art. But in other ways, it should have been a cinch. Even before a nameless Greek bard concocted the myth of Icarus, people yearned to fly. To bullet through the clouds, the earth tiny and cartographic below: The prospect is irresistible, in childhood and, later, in dreams. Not for nothing do kids follow flying superheroes with primal fervor. Not for nothing does the beleaguered urbanite played by Kevin Kline in the current Grand Canyon soar above nighttime L.A. in his sleep.
In real life, though, the closest you get to free flight is an airplane (no good; you’re stuffed in a tin can of boredom and bad food) and skydiving (okay if your idea of flying is straight down). Then there are movies, a form of communal dreaming, but even they rarely get it right. If you doubt that, rent The Rocketeer on a double bill with King of the Rocketmen, an enjoyably hokey 12-chapter serial that Rocketeer clearly uses as one of its stylistic touchstones.
The Rocketeer has both the budget and the technology to do what it wants to do, and when it finally lets hero Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) strap on his rocket pack and cut loose, it delivers the Icarus rush that usually comes only in dreams. But that takes so long to happen. The movie has its origins in Dave Stevens’ 1982 graphic novel (comic book to us plebes), a knowing, exquisitely drawn valentine to aviation aces and 1930s Los Angeles. Director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) goes all out in re-creating Stevens’ visual opulence; The Rocketeer has a rich Art Deco sheen that extends right down to its reimagining of the helmet from King of the Rocketmen (it makes the wearer seem like a hip insect). Even if home video shears off much of the original wide-screen splendor, the movie’s look is so witty that you wish the script had followed up on it.
Instead, it ends up as much of a tap dance as Rocketmen was. Here’s what you get: A lot of ’30s in-jokes (such as a thug based on B-movie mutant Rondo Hatton) guaranteed to go over the heads of ’90s viewers. A nice but pallid lead duo in Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. Timothy Dalton (a.k.a. James Bond) hamming it up as an Errol Flynn-type bad guy who wants to give the rocket pack to the Nazis. And a plot that dawdles and stalls and holds its flying scenes out like a carrot on a stick. What’s weird about this movie is that while the special effects have the power to tap something deep and unarticulated in the viewer, the producers are almost perversely stingy about doling them out. Not to sound crass, but what did they think we go to movies for? To remain earthbound? That doesn’t fly, and neither does The Rocketeer. C