Have you ever thought “Man, there have been so many awesome geeky things that came out way BEFORE it was cool to be geeky”? Well, we do all the time! In fact, RetroGeek will take you back to remember and give geek cred where it’s due. If something ever comes up in this column that you never heard of, then by gosh, we’ve done our job and we’ve hopefully introduced you to something awesome. Let’s get started!
This first edition of RetroGeek will take a look back at “The Rocketeer,” a film based on the comic book created by Dave Stevens in the 1980s. The comic book itself is a fun read but here I will just focus on the film.
Directed by Joe Johnston, produced by Disney, and starring Billy Campbell, the film is about a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord and his mechanic friend, Peevy, who find a secret rocket pack that allows anyone to fly. Dodging gangsters, Howard Hughes and Nazis, Cliff does what he must to save his girl, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), from a Nazi spy, played by Timothy Dalton, and make sure the Nazis don’t get the rocket pack. The film was a flop when it hit theaters in the summer of 1991 but it achieved some success when it was released on home video (that was before Blu-Ray and downloading, for you youngsters). The movie gained a cult following among young male kids that endures to this day.
I can only speak for myself as to why this movie is still so special to me. It has nothing to do with the effects, though they still hold up today and possess an organic charm. It has to do with the simple desire of wanting to fly. The notion of a stunt pilot still sparks excitement in me when I recall airshows I attended as a kid: the dangers, tricks, the romanticism of being a pilot. I can’t help but feel awe and giddiness at the same time.
When I first saw the film, I immediately loved the old planes and the air tricks, but then came the rocket. Strapping it on and taking off was the best thing I saw and to this day I get chills when I see that scene. It was as close to being free as a person can be.
I loved the action and effects when I was a kid and as I got older I loved the story more and more. It has the feeling of an old-fashioned pulp fiction comic or novel, when stories of rocket packs and Nazi spies posing as movie stars was possible. That was the genius of Dave Stevens; it was an homage to the stories of a time that was innocent, where a guy with nothing but his guts and fists can take on the Third Reich, no matter how poorly prepared he was. He had the best intentions at heart and did what he could do to save his girl and keep the rocket out of evil hands.
And the humor! There are moments in this film where the only way to face a dangerous situation is with a sense of humor. Billy Campbell pulled off the role of someone who keeps getting in over his head. I really liked the notion of Howard Hughes being the one who created the rocket; there is a sense that it all could have been possible with the number of inventions he was cranking out at the time. Played by Terry O’Quinn of “Lost,” O’Quinn brought some gravitas to the role and gave the idea of the invention of the rocket some sense of historical credibility. Interestingly enough the inventor of the rocket in the comic was Doc Savage, a character from the pulp era that Stevens incorporated into his own comics.
“The Rocketeer” is one of those special films that still holds the imagination of a generation; those of us in our twenties can still recall the excitement about that film as we talk about it and recall the notion of being able to fly without a plane, of being fearless and doing something no one would dare do. It told us we didn’t need to be the strongest or the smartest or even the most prepared but just to take life head on and do our best while we stumble around making one liners.