Jillian and I were talking about the relative merits of various movies tonight, in particular Top Gun, which I think stinks, while Jillian at least likes it more than I do. She believes you should consider whether or not a movie accomplishes what it sets out to do, and thinks Top Gun succeeds in this regard. She's got me thinking about this, so here are some thoughts.
Here's what I think Top Gun accomplishes:
1) It works on the level of an advertisement for joining the military
2) It works on the theme of bonding, but I'd argue not on the level of adult male bonding ... rather, the bonding between guys that goes on in the movie is a glorified version of what 12 year old boys imagine male bonding to be like. Rio Bravo is a movie about adult male bonding; Top Gun is a movie about early-adolescent bonding. Which would be fine if we were talking about Stand By Me, but in Top Gun, the characters are adults, so I'm not sure it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
What I think Top Gun fails to accomplish:
1) The romance between Cruise and McGillis isn't particularly believable. Again to cite Rio Bravo, the on-the-face-of-it-ludicrous romance between old John Wayne and young Angie Dickinson has real fire to it when compared to Tom and Kelly.
2) The action scenes are not very coherent. I'm not sure how easy it is to film air action scenes; it's hard to know where the various participants are located when they are all in the sky. But Top Gun's aerial action doesn't work the way, say, The Road Warrior works. In Road Warrior, each individual action scene has a propulsive excitement to it; the film as a whole does the same thing, culminating in the big final chase scene. In Top Gun, all you get is planes going fast and doing tricks.
Why I think academic-minded people might over-rate Top Gun:
There is a LOT of subtext, and it's all interesting and worth analyzing. But it's not intentional subtext; I don't really believe Tony Scott thought "I want to make a movie about homoeroticism." So we can accept that the movie makes an interesting subject for analysis (and I've used it in classes, myself), but I don't think you can say a movie is accomplishing what it set out to do when what makes it interesting are things that lie outside the film makers' intentions.
As an action movie, it's subpar; it's no Star Wars. As a romance, it's subpar; it's no Officer and a Gentleman. As a dissertation on the theme of male bonding, it's adolescent at best; it's not even a Big Hit. And I picked movies for comparison that are good but not great to show just how cruddy I think Top Gun really is. I can't see rating a film highly because people like Jillian and I are smart enough to make something of it. That just means I should give us a good rating, not Tony Scott.
Ultimately, I agree with Jillian that one part of rating a film is examining how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do. That's why I don't mind giving a high rating to something like The Big Hit or Airplane. But there are so many movies that do what Top Gun tries to do, and do it better, that I can't see why I should take it seriously as a good movie. And what it is trying to accomplish is so puny that I'm not gonna say "almost but not quite," the way I will with a movie that reaches for the stars and falls short.