In every one of the six Tom Cruise films released in the past four years, our hero has found himself in trouble on an aeroplane. In this month’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he leaps out of one at 25,000ft, and in its immediate predecessor, Rogue Nation, clung to an Airbus’s hull during take-off. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back featured a fight on a passenger jet; The Mummy had an anti-gravity nosedive. Edge of Tomorrow saw Cruise bailing out of an exploding gunship, then twisting through the sky on the end of a zip line. And the drug-smuggling thriller American Made was almost nothing but airborne derring-do: its standout sequence involved Cruise crash-landing a cocaine-packed Piper Aerostar on a suburban avenue in order to evade US Customs.
Plane craziness has become a Cruise trademark; at least two of the scenes above – those in Mission: Impossible – were the actor’s idea in the first place, according to the films’ director Christopher McQuarrie and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood. You could put it down to his personal brand: he is, after all, an actor whose stardom was minted in the cockpit of an F-14, in Tony Scott’s Top Gun, and who has himself held a pilot’s licence since 1994. Yet, in the two decades between Top Gun and the third Mission: Impossible film – Cruise’s “respectable” phase, with its three Oscar nominations and string of collaborations with Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick – his characters’ feet hardly left the ground. The plane fixation is a recent thing, and clearly personal. So what, exactly, is going on?
A possible explanation lies in Sigmund Freud, and it’s precisely the one you might think. “Freud wrote about dreams and fantasies of flight on at least two occasions, and in both instances he arrived at the same conclusion,” writes Rutgers psychology professor Daniel Ogilvie in his 2003 book Fantasies of Flight. “Images of flight in dreams and in daytime fantasies are to be understood as deflected expressions of sexual impulses… Sexual instincts, of course, would prefer more direct outlets. But when anxiety gets in the way, or when a person is confused about the raw nature of his or her desires, fantasies of floating above the ground or soaring through space provide at least partial release of primitive forces.”
Now, Freud may not be the ideal lens through which to scrutinise every film star’s career. But considering Cruise’s other recent signature stunt has been clambering up enormous, ahem, columnar structures – pillars of Utah rock, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper – it would be hard to argue he’s an unreasonable test case. The statistics bear it out: this absurdly handsome actor last played a romantic lead 17 years ago, in the science-fiction thriller Vanilla Sky. Since then, he has flirted with Cameron Diaz on a red motorcycle in the action comedy Knight and Day, and saved the world alongside various action-movie damsels. But the age of Tom Cruise as a sex symbol – as seen in Risky Business, Cocktail, Far and Away, Eyes Wide Shut – is long gone.