The Rocketeer (film) | Wikipedia audio article
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The Rocketeer (film) | Wikipedia audio article

August 9, 2019


The Rocketeer is a 1991 American period superhero
film from Walt Disney Pictures, produced by Charles Gordon, Lawrence Gordon, and Lloyd
Levin, directed by Joe Johnston, that stars Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin,
Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and Tiny Ron Taylor. The film is based upon the character of the
same name created by comic book artist and writer Dave Stevens. Set in 1938 Los Angeles, California, The Rocketeer
tells the story of stunt pilot Cliff Secord who stumbles upon a hidden rocket powered
jet pack that he thereafter uses to fly without the need of an aircraft. His heroic deeds soon attract the attention
of Howard Hughes and the FBI, who are hunting for the missing jet pack, as well as the Nazi
operatives that stole it from Hughes. Development for The Rocketeer started as far
back as 1983, when Stevens sold the film rights. Steve Miner and William Dear considered directing
The Rocketeer before Johnston signed on. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
had creative differences with Disney, which caused the film to languish in development
hell. The studio also intended to change the trademark
helmet design; Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet, but Johnston
convinced the studio otherwise. Johnston also had to convince Disney to let
him cast unknown actor Billy Campbell in the lead role. Filming for The Rocketeer lasted from September
19, 1990 to January 22, 1991. The visual effects sequences were created
and designed by Industrial Light & Magic, and were supervised by animation director
Wes Takahashi. The film was released on June 21, 1991, and
received positive reviews from critics. Plans for Rocketeer sequels were abandoned
after the film was a disappointment at the box office, grossing only $46 million on a
$35 million budget.==Plot==
In 1938 Los Angeles, two gangsters in Eddie Valentine’s gang steal a rocket pack from
Howard Hughes. During their escape from the authorities that
ends up on an airfield, one gangster is shot to death, the getaway driver hides the rocket
pack, and stunt pilot Cliff Secord’s Gee Bee racer is totaled in the resulting auto-airplane
accident, crippling his career; he and airplane mechanic Peevy later find the rocket pack
hidden in a biplane cockpit. Movie star Neville Sinclair had hired Valentine’s
gang to steal the rocket pack, and he sends his monstrous henchman Lothar to question
the injured getaway driver, who tells him about his hiding the rocket pack at the airfield. Cliff’s girlfriend is aspiring actress Jenny
Blake, who has a bit part in Sinclair’s latest swashbuckling film, but recent events begin
to drive a wedge in their relationship. Sinclair overhears Cliff attempting to tell
Jenny about the rocket pack, so he invites her to dinner. Afterward, at a local air show, Cliff uses
the rocket pack (and Peevy’s newly designed face-hiding finned helmet) to rescue his friend
Malcolm, who is drunkenly piloting the biplane. The newsreel press and Valentine’s gangsters
all see him from the airshow audience, whereupon “The Rocketeer” becomes a media sensation,
but also sets Sinclair and the FBI on Cliff’s tail. Sinclair sends Lothar to Cliff and Peevy’s
home to find the rocket pack. The FBI arrives, but Cliff and Peevy escape
while Lothar steals the rocket pack’s detailed schematics drawn up by Peevy. Later, at the airfield diner, Cliff and Peevy
are trapped by several Valentine mobsters; they learn about Jenny’s date with Sinclair,
and the actor’s involvement in the hunt for the rocket pack. The diner patrons overpower the gangsters,
while a bullet ricochet punctures the rocket pack’s fuel tank, which Peevy temporarily
patches with Cliff’s chewing gum. Cliff proceeds to the South Seas Club, where
he tells Jenny about his new rocket-powered alter ego. The Valentine Gang arrives, and Jenny is kidnapped
by Sinclair in the ensuing melée. At Sinclair’s home, Jenny discovers that he
is a Nazi secret agent and knocks him out. She is later detained and forced to leave
a message for Cliff to bring the rocket pack to the Griffith Observatory in exchange for
her life. Just before he is arrested by the FBI and
taken to Hughes and Peevy, Cliff hides the rocket pack. Hughes explains that his rocket pack is a
prototype, similar to one that Nazi scientists have, up to now, been unsuccessful in developing;
he shows them a horrifying propaganda film that reveals the scope of the Nazis’ plans,
depicting an army of flying soldiers invading the United States. The FBI agents mention that they are tracking
a Nazi spy in Hollywood, whom Cliff realizes must be Sinclair. When Hughes demands the return of the rocket
pack, Cliff explains that he needs it to rescue Jenny; he escapes (using a scale model prototype
of the Spruce Goose as a glider), but inadvertently leaves behind a clue to where he is headed. Cliff flies to the rendezvous, where Sinclair
demands that Cliff give him the rocket pack. Cliff divulges to the mobsters that the actor
is a Nazi; Valentine’s gang turn their weapons on Sinclair and Lothar, but Sinclair summons
sixty heavily armed Nazi S.A. stormtroopers hidden at the observatory. The Nazi rigid airship Luxembourg (under the
guise of a peace mission) appears overhead to evacuate Sinclair. FBI agents suddenly announce their presence,
having secretly surrounded the area; they and the mobsters join forces to battle the
Nazis. Sinclair and Lothar escape, dragging Jenny
with them aboard the airship. Cliff flies to and boards the airship, but
during the ensuing showdown, Jenny accidentally sets the bridge on fire with a flare gun. Sinclair holds Jenny hostage, forcing Cliff
to give him the rocket pack, but not before he secretly removes the chewing gum patch,
allowing fuel to leak near the rocket pack’s exhaust. Sinclair dons the rocket pack and flies off,
and the leaked fuel causes the rocket pack to catch on fire, causing Sinclair to plummet
to his death on fire near the HOLLYWOODLAND sign; the resulting explosion destroys the
“LAND” part of the sign. Lothar is engulfed in flames as the airship
explodes, but Cliff and Jenny are rescued at the last moment by Hughes and Peevy flying
an autogyro. Hughes later presents Cliff with a brand-new
Gee Bee air racer and a fresh pack of Beemans gum. As Hughes leaves, Jenny returns Peevy’s rocket
pack blueprints, which she found in Sinclair’s home; Peevy decides that, with some modifications,
he can build an even better one.==Cast====Production=====
Development===Comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens created
the Rocketeer in 1982 and immediately viewed the character as an ideal protagonist for
a film adaptation. Steve Miner purchased the film rights from
Stevens in 1983, but he strayed too far from the original concept and the rights reverted
to Stevens. In 1985 Stevens gave writers Danny Bilson
and Paul De Meo a free option on The Rocketeer rights. Stevens liked that “their ideas for The Rocketeer
were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930s movie serials with all the right
dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my characters contemporarily,
but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs”.Stevens, Bilson and De Meo began to consider making
The Rocketeer as a low-budget film, shot in black-and-white and funded by independent
investors. Their plan was to make the film a complete
homage to Republic’s Commando Cody serials, and use a cast largely associated with character
actors. However, that same year, the trio approached
William Dear to direct/co-write The Rocketeer, and they eventually dropped the low-budget
idea. Bilson, De Meo, and Dear kept the comic book’s
basic plot intact, but fleshed it out to include a Hollywood setting and a climactic battle
against a Nazi Zeppelin. They also tweaked Cliff’s girlfriend to avoid
comparisons to Bettie Page (Stevens’ original inspiration), changing her name from Betty
to Jenny and her profession from nude model to Hollywood extra (a change also made to
make the film more family friendly). Dear proceeded to transform the climax from
a submarine into a Zeppelin setpiece.Stevens, Bilson, De Meo, and Dear began to pitch The
Rocketeer in 1986 to the major film studios but were turned down. “This was 1986, long before Batman or Dick
Tracy or anything similar”, Stevens explained. “In those days, no studio was interested at
all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for
our own good!” Walt Disney Studios eventually accepted The
Rocketeer because they believed the film had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising. The Rocketeer was set to be released through
the studio’s Touchstone Pictures label; Stevens, Bilson, De Meo, and Dear all signed a contract
which would permit them to make a trilogy of Rocketeer films. However, Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg
switched the film to a Walt Disney Pictures release. According to Stevens, “immediately, Betty
and anything else ‘adult’ went right out with the bathwater. They really tried to shoehorn it into a kiddie
property so they could sell toys. All they really wanted at the end of the day,
was the name”.Initially, Disney executives wanted to set the film in contemporary times,
out of concern that a period piece might not appeal to a large audience. Bilson and DeMeo argued that the success of
the Indiana Jones trilogy proved that moviegoers would enjoy an adventure film set in the 1930s,
and the studio finally agreed.Bilson and DeMeo then submitted their seven-page film treatment
to Disney, but the studio put their script through an endless series of revisions. Over five years, Disney fired and rehired
Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo explained that “Disney felt that they
needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out and we were
always brought back on”. They found the studio’s constant tinkering
with the screenplay to be a frustrating process as “executives would like previously excised
dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years
ago were put back in. What was the point”? DeMeo said. One of Bilson and De Meo’s significant revisions
to the script over the years was to make Cliff and Jenny’s romance more believable and avoid
cliché aspects that would stereotype Jenny as a damsel in distress. The numerous project delays forced Dear to
drop out as director. Joe Johnston, a fan of the comic book, immediately
offered his services as director when he found out Disney owned the film rights. Johnston was quickly hired and pre-production
started in early 1990. After Bilson and De Meo’s third major rewrite,
Disney finally greenlit The Rocketeer.The characterization of Neville Sinclair was inspired
by movie star Errol Flynn, or rather by the image of Flynn that had been popularized by
Charles Higham’s unauthorized and fabricated biography of the actor, in which he asserted
that Flynn was, among other things, a Nazi spy. The film’s Neville Sinclair is, like Higham’s
Flynn, a movie star known for his work in swashbuckler roles, and who is secretly a
Nazi spy. Because Higham’s biography of Flynn was not
refuted until the late 1980s, the image of Flynn as a closet Nazi remained current all
through the arduous process of writing and re-writing the script. The other real-life characterization was of
Howard Hughes.===Casting===
Casting the lead role of Cliff Secord was a struggle for the filmmakers. Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg even had
one of the studio’s then-staff writers, Karey Kirkpatrick, audition for the part. Kevin Costner and Matthew Modine were the
first actors considered for the role. When they both proved to be unavailable, Dennis
Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioned for the part. Johnny Depp was Disney’s favorite choice,
while Paxton commented he came “really close” to getting the lead. Vincent D’Onofrio turned down the role and
the filmmakers were forced to continue their search.The decision to cast Billy Campbell
as Cliff Secord caused mixed emotions among Disney executives. Director Joe Johnston and creator Dave Stevens
believed Campbell was perfect for the role, but Disney wanted an A-list actor. Johnston eventually convinced Disney otherwise. Campbell was not familiar with the comic book
when he got the part but quickly read it, in addition to books on aviation. He also prepared by listening to 1940s period
music. The actor had a fear of flying but overcame
it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator, Craig Hosking. To ensure his safety, Campbell was doubled
for almost all of the flying sequences in conventional aircraft. Ultimately, a scale model devised by ILM puppeteer
Tom St. Amand was used for all the rocket pack scenes.For the female lead of Cliff’s
girlfriend Jenny, Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane and Elizabeth McGovern were considered
before Jennifer Connelly was eventually cast. Campbell and Connelly’s working relationship
eventually led to a romantic coupling, which Johnston found to be a technique for method
acting that helped with their on-screen chemistry. For Secord’s sidekick, Peevy, Dave Stevens
hoped that Lloyd Bridges would play the part, but Bridges turned it down and Alan Arkin
was cast. The part of Neville Sinclair was offered to
Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance before Timothy Dalton accepted the role. Lastly, the part of Eddie Valentine was written
with Joe Pesci in mind, but he turned down the part, which went to Paul Sorvino.Remaining
cast members included Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar, Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes, Jon Polito
as Otis Bigelow, Ed Lauter as Agent Fitch, Eddie Jones as Malcolm the Mechanic and Robert
Miranda as Spanish Johnny. Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens has a cameo
as the German test pilot who is killed when the Nazis’ version of a rocket backpack explodes
during the takeoff sequence.===Filming===
Principal photography for The Rocketeer lasted from September 19, 1990 to January 22, 1991. Filming at the Griffith Observatory took place
in November 1990. The film ended up going 50 days over schedule
due to weather and mechanical problems. Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens allied himself
with director Joe Johnston and production manager Ian Bryce in an effort to be as heavily
involved in the production process as possible and to try and secure as much artistic control
as he could from Disney. Disney, in particular, was not enthusiastic
with Stevens’ involvement. “I was on the set day and night”, Stevens
reflected, “from pre-production till post-production! And initially, I had to fight to prove that
I was there for the benefit of the film, and not for my own ego”.The original production
budget was set at $25 million, but rose to $35 million. This happened after Disney became impressed
with the dailies; “they realized this was a bigger movie than they were anticipating”,
Johnston explained, “and they approved overages. It never got completely out of control”. An abandoned World War II runway at the Santa
Maria, California airport set the scene for the fictional Chaplin Air Field. Additional scenes were shot at Bakersfield. For the air circus scene, 700 Santa Maria
extras and 25 vintage aircraft were employed. Aerial coordinator Craig Hosking remarked
in an interview, “What makes The Rocketeer so unique was having several one-of-a-kind
planes that hadn’t flown in years”, including a 1916 Standard biplane and a Gee Bee Model
Z racer. The sequence where Cliff rescues Malcolm was
adapted shot-for-shot from Stevens’ comic book.===Design===Stevens gave the film’s production designer
Jim Bissell and his two art directors his entire reference library pertaining to the
Rocketeer at that time period, including blueprints for hangars and bleachers, schematics for
building the autogyro, photos and drawings of the Bulldog Cafe, the uniforms for the
air circus staff, and contacts for locating the vintage aircraft that were to be used. Stevens remembers that they “literally just
took the reference and built the sets”. Disney originally intended to change the Rocketeer’s
trademark helmet design completely. President Michael Eisner wanted a straight
NASA-type helmet but director Johnston threatened to quit production on The Rocketeer. Disney relented, but only after creating a
number of prototype designs that were ultimately rejected by the filmmakers. Stevens asked Johnston for one week to produce
a good helmet design. He proceeded to work with a sculptor he knew,
made a cast of the film’s main stunt man’s head and brainstormed ideas with the help
of his sketches. They produced a helmet that the filmmakers
agreed looked appropriate from all angles; in most respects it was identical to the helmet
design Stevens had used for his comics series.Rick Baker designed the Rondo Hatton-inspired prosthetic
makeup designs for the Lothar character, portrayed by Tiny Ron Taylor.===Visual effects===The visual effects were designed and created
by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) with Ken Ralston (Who Framed Roger Rabbit,
Sony Pictures Imageworks founder) serving as the VFX supervisor. Rocketeer director Joe Johnston previously
worked as an art director/model maker at ILM before his film directing career took off. Johnston’s insistence on a realistic flying
rocketman led ILM to devise a lifelike Cliff Secord model that was filmed in “stop-motion-animation”
coupled with an 18″ figurine that was manipulated by hand and in “go-motion” to create “motion-blur.” Speeded-up Moviola effects were also used
to advantage in the air circus sequence where a combination of live action and stop-motion
animation was also employed.The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi Zeppelin was filmed over
four months near Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, California through
pick-ups. Remaining visual effects footage took place
at ILM’s headquarters in San Rafael and Hamilton Air Force Base. There, they constructed a 12 ft scale model
of the Zeppelin, which was photographed against matte paintings that resembled 1938 Los Angeles
for intercutting purposes. The Zeppelin explosion special effect alone
cost $400,000.===Soundtrack===
The music for The Rocketeer was composed and conducted by James Horner. The soundtrack received positive reviews and
is often mentioned as being one of the film’s stronger elements. The soundtrack was released by Hollywood Records
and features nearly an hour of music with eight tracks of score and two vocal tracks
performed by actress/singer Melora Hardin. The two songs were arranged by Billy May,
who had collaborated with Horner several times in the past.==Release=====Marketing===
To promote The Rocketeer, Disney made tie-in endorsements with Pizza Hut and M&M’s/Mars
candies. An extensive product line followed of computer
games, toys, posters, trading cards, pins, patches, buttons, T-shirts, and children’s
clothing, licensed to coincide with the film’s opening. The studio also spent a further $19 million
on TV advertising alone. A television special documentary, titled The
Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air, was broadcast on the Disney Channel in June 1991. That same month, a young adult novelization
written by Peter David was published by Bantam Books, while a similar novelization by Ron
Fontes, for younger readers, was published by Scholastic Books for Disney Press.The Rocketeer
had its premiere at the 1,100 seat El Capitan Theatre on June 19, 1991. This was the first premiere to take place
at the El Capitan in more than two years, due to an Art Deco-like restoration project
Disney had been working on.===Home media===
When released on the home video market in 1991–1992 in both LaserDisc and VHS/Beta
videotape formats, The Rocketeer earned an additional $23.18 million in rentals. The film’s musical score, compiled and produced
by James Horner, was released in both audio cassette and CD variants. The Rocketeer was released on Region 1 DVD
by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment in August 1999. No special features were included on the later
DVD release although the 1991 LaserDisc (#1239 as) had included the original theatrical trailer. A 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc was
released on December 13, 2011.==Reception=====
Box office===The Rocketeer was released in the United States
on June 21, 1991, earning $9.6 million in its opening weekend in 1,616 theaters. The film opened #4 behind Robin Hood: Prince
of Thieves, City Slickers and Dying Young. Rocketeer eventually grossed only $46.6 million
in US box office, making it a commercial disappointment. Outside the US and Canada, the film was released
through Touchstone Pictures rather than Walt Disney Pictures, in an attempt to attract
the teenage audience it did not reach in North America.The Disney tag also was seen to have
turned off people who assumed that the film was for children, which was probably the reason
why the Walt Disney Home Video logo was not seen on video releases of the film. In addition, Rocketeer’s original Art Deco
poster was changed because it failed to draw attention to the cast, including then-current
James Bond, Timothy Dalton. A new poster was designed to feature Dalton,
Billy Campbell, and Jennifer Connelly prominently. The film also failed in Britain, grossing
just over £1 million in its first two weeks at just under 250 screens. The new advertising campaign was being designed
while the British promotional campaign for the film was already under way and some theaters
still had the stylized United States film poster.===Critical response===
The film received positive reviews from critics. Based on 60 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes,
63% of the critics enjoyed The Rocketeer with an average score of 5.94/10. Metacritic gave the film a score of 61 out
of 100, based on reviews from 8 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the
film a grade A- on scale of A to F.Roger Ebert enjoyed the film, noting its homages to the
film serials of the 1930s–1950s. Although Ebert cited the visual effects as
being state of the art, he described them “as charmingly direct as those rockets in
the Flash Gordon serials—the ones with sparklers hidden inside of them, which were pulled on
wires in front of papier-mâché mountains”. Leonard Maltin wrote that the “film captures
the look of the ’30s, as well as the gee-whiz innocence of Saturday matinée serials, but
it’s talky and takes too much time to get where it’s going. Dalton has fun as a villain patterned after
Errol Flynn”. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine also
gave a positive review. “The Rocketeer is more than one of the best
films of the summer; it’s the kind of movie magic that we don’t see much anymore”, he
continued, “the kind that charms us, rather than bullying us, into suspending disbelief”.Internet
reviewer James Berardinelli commented that “The Rocketeer may not be perfect, but it’s
an excellent example of how to adapt a comic book to the screen”. Janet Maslin from The New York Times gave
a mixed review. She called The Rocketeer “a benign adventure
saga that has attractive stars, elaborate gimmicks and nice production values—everything
it needs except a personality of its own”. Maslin believed that by setting the story
in 1938, the filmmakers were more interested in the Art Deco production design and visual
effects instead of imbuing the storyline with “inspiration, which may be why it finally
feels flat”. Hal Hinson, writing in The Washington Post,
felt the film was too concerned with family-friendliness. Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader believed
both the editing and the storyline were not well balanced and felt The Rocketeer ripped-off
elements of Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. Rosenbaum also cited the casting decision
of character actors as being too practical. “The whole thing is good-natured enough”,
he explained, “but increasingly mechanical”.Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens acknowledged he was “satisfied
with 70% of the film” and highly praised Joe Johnston’s direction. “The overall spirit and sweetness of the series
is still there, intact”, Stevens remembers. “We lost some good character stuff in editing
for time, but the tone of it is still what I was trying to project in the comic pages. I also thought Joe’s casting choices were
excellent. To his credit, Joe did not fill out the cast
with a bunch of Beverly Hills, 90210 Barbie and Ken-type kids”. Stevens found Billy Campbell to be “a good-looking
guy, but he also happens to be Cliff! I would never have cast him based on good
looks alone, but he came into the audition and just nailed it shut. He was made for it. The part was his”.===Accolades===
The Rocketeer was nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the
Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, but lost both categories to Terminator 2:
Judgment Day. Costume designer Marilyn Vance won the Saturn
Award for Best Costumes, while Jennifer Connelly (Best Supporting Actress) and VFX supervisor
Ken Ralston (Best Special Effects) also received nominations.==Possible sequel==From the beginning of the process of making
The Rocketeer, creator Dave Stevens and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo envisioned it
as the first entry of a trilogy. Disney, in particular, hoped the film would
carry a vein similar to the Indiana Jones franchise. Both Campbell and Connelly were contracted
for sequels, Campbell for two more and Connelly for only one. However, with the film’s disappointing box
office performance, plans for a sequel were halted in July 1991. “[Unfortunately] the movie didn’t make as
much money as Disney had hoped”, Campbell reflected in a January 2008 interview with
MTV News. “And that coupled with the acrimonious relationship
that the director [Joe Johnston] and the studio had, contributed to them not even considering
it”.Although the calls for a sequel remain unrequited, as with many films of this genre,
the film has built up a cult following in both the United States and Japan, where until
2008, Medicom, a major toy manufacturer, issued two versions of 12″ poseable action figures
and replica helmets based on the film. The original Dave Stevens comics are still
in demand and movie memorabilia continues to have a ready audience. In addition, Johnston’s work on this film
led to him being hired 20 years later to direct another period superhero film, Captain America:
The First Avenger in 2011.As of 2012, Disney was reported to be developing a remake of
The Rocketeer. Saw series creator James Wan has talked about
directing the film.On July 28, 2016, it was confirmed that Walt Disney Pictures will be
rebooting The Rocketeer, titled The Rocketeers, with the film being written by Max Winkler
and Matt Spicer. Brigham Tayler is producing the film, as is
Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons and Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers. It was reported that The Rocketeers will be
a “reboot sequel” that takes place six years after the original film with a black female
pilot in the lead role. The film’s plot sees the lead take on the
mantle of The Rocketeer after Cliff Secord has gone missing while fighting the Nazis. The new Rocketeer goes on a mission to stop
a corrupt scientist from stealing jetpack technology and shifting the balance of the
Cold War. Peter Ramsey expressed interest in directing
the sequel and also suggested several other directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Darnell
Martin and Amma Asante for the project, as well. As of May 2019, there have been no further
updates regarding this possible film

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