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Mission Aborted: Why China’s ‘Top Gun’ Never Took Off



The country’s most daring and promising young fighter pilot takes part in a top-secret testing program for the military’s most advanced fighter jets. Logline sound familiar? With hot young Chinese test pilots and heart-stopping aerial acrobatics, Born to Fly was supposed to be China’s answer to Top Gun: Maverick. The wildly anticipated action flick stars Wang Yibo, a pop star turned actor (think China’s Harry Styles), and was written and directed by Liu Xiaoshi, who cut his teeth making popular promotional videos for the Chinese military. Produced in full cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force — much as Maverick was with the US Navy — the film showcases China’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

So, when Born to Fly was officially scheduled for release on Sept. 30, the day before China’s National Day holiday, many analysts were bullish on the tentpole’s prospects of following in the footsteps of Wolf Warrior 2 (2017, $870 million) and The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021, $902 million) to become China’s next proudly nationalistic military blockbuster.

But Born to Fly was mysteriously grounded just days before its planned opening. The film’s producers, including major studios Alibaba Pictures and Bona Film Group, put out a vague statement saying that the release would be postponed “in order to present better production effects.” No further details were provided and no update has been given.

There was a time when Maverick himself was actually expected to cruise into China’s airspace. In 2019, Chinese tech giant Tencent shelled out tens of millions of dollars to buy a 12.5 percent stake in Skydance and Paramount’s Top Gun sequel (budgeted at $170 million, not including marketing). But before long, Tencent discreetly withdrew its investment Top Gun 2 — because it feared angering the Communist Party leadership by supporting a movie that overtly celebrates US military prowess, according to sources in the Chinese film industry.

Top Gun: Maverick never received permission to release in China, but it did more than fine at the global box office anyway, earning just shy of $1.5 billion — the most of any film in 2022 so far.

So what happened to China’s answer to Maverick?

Chinese authorities never comment directly on censorship decisions, but the word within the Beijing film industry is that Born to Fly‘s producers were made to realize that their movie’s stunts and visual effects were far inferior to Top Gun: Maverick’s and that the Chinese version risked ridicule in comparison — all of which would have been most unwelcome, even politically dangerous, given that the two films are, in part, propagandistic displays of the United States’ and China’s military strengths. Some in China who have seen Born to Fly have said that the movie disappointed the Chinese air force because of both its overall perceived shabbiness and its mistaken reference to China’s proudly homemade J-20 jet as a “fourth-generation” stealth fighter, rather than, correctly, a more advanced, fifth- generation plane of its kind. Most of all, though, the original timing of the underwhelming Chinese film’s release — on Sept. 30 — could not have been more fraught, coming just two weeks before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where Xi Jinping was anointed with an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader. It was a moment of historical political sensitivity in the country, a time when Party leadership would brook no embarrassments.

Now that the gravest political risks have been averted, maybe Born to Fly eventually lift off in 2023, after some dialogue overdubbing and enhancements to the movie’s VFX?

“No one knows,” says a source in Beijing close to the project. “Alibaba is waiting for the go-ahead from the Film Bureau to set a new release date. It could come anytime, or it might never come at all.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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