Tom Cruise was set to jet into Cannes on Wednesday with "Top Gun: Maverick" as a Russian dissident in the main competition showcases an alternative side to the world's top film festival. Cruise, last at Cannes 30 years ago, is tipped to make a spectacular entrance accompanied by a French Air Force aerobatic display team dazzling with a fly-past over the red carpet.

Critics have treated the sequel to his superstar-making 1986 blockbuster to giddy reviews, with hopes the film will boost movie theatres still struggling to recover from the pandemic. "In the history of cinema... (Cruise) has one of the highest success rates," festival director Thierry Fremaux said this week. "This is someone that we haven't seen on streaming platforms, TV series, or doing adverts... He is someone who is devoted to cinema."

Before that, in the main competition for the top prize Palme d'Or, Cannes was set to welcome Russian dissident Kirill Serebrennikov with a very different offering: "Tchaikovsky's Wife" about the legendary composer's brief and tragic marriage. The director was unable to attend the festival for two previous nominations due to a controversial court case that barred him from leaving Russia. Now in exile following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, his new film is unlikely to improve his standing with the Kremlin given that it shines a light on the composer's homosexuality-a story that remains taboo for Russian conservatives.

US actor and producer Tom Cruise poses during the red carpet ceremony of the film "Top Gun: Maverick!"

'Speak up'

The war has already been a major theme at the festival, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky making a surprise appearance via video at the opening ceremony on Tuesday. "Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?" Zelensky said.

There will be a special screening of "Mariupolis 2", a documentary about the conflict by Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was killed in Ukraine last month-reportedly by Russian forces. Ukraine's beleaguered filmmakers will get a special day at the festival and one of its most promising directors, Sergei Loznitsa, will show "The Natural History of Destruction", about the bombing of German cities in World War II.

The head of the jury charged with selecting the winners this year, French actor Vincent Lindon, said the invasion of Ukraine had penetrated even the glamorous bubble that is Cannes, which was founded in 1946, he noted as a response to fascism. "The torments of the world, which is bleeding, suffering, burning... they rack my conscience," he told the opening ceremony.

According to analysis site The Numbers, Cruise's 39 films as lead actor have pulled in just shy of $8.5 billion (8 billion euros) worldwide. "Top Gun: Maverick" could add as much as $390 million from the United States alone, according to Box Office Pro. Empire magazine praised its "slick visuals, crew camaraderie, thrilling aerial action, a surprising emotional wallop and, in Tom Cruise, a magnetic movie-star performance as comforting as an old leather jacket." - AFP