DIRECTED BY: Randal Kleiser
WRITTEN BY: Michael Burton & Matt MacManus (screenplay); Mark H. Baker (story)
PEW PEW: Flight of the Navigator is a very fun movie, but there aren’t many action elements.
CAT FOOD: In an interesting way, the film points out the marked difference between the seventies and the eighties, most notably in terms of commercialisation.
So I’m at this party several years back talking to a Serbian fellow about forgotten childhood gems. He mentions this movie he’d never been able to find about this kid that gets abducted by an alien ship, brought several years into the future, and shown an enchanting array of strange alien critters aboard the vessel. Since I managed to exist for a good chunk of that magical decade known as the eighties, the time left an indelible mark on me in the form of an absolute love of the aesthetics of its sci-fi films. Thus, I showed no hesitation in identifying the Serbian fellow’s long lost favourite.
Dude, that’s Flight of the Navigator.
So buddy goes and (like I’d urge any respectable human being to do) half-doubts my quick answer, double-checks the good ol’ internet, and bickety bam— he lights up like Christmas. This isn’t like E.T., a film that every kid in the eighties saw and treasured. This film kind of disappeared and, for a time, existed only in the minds of those truly affected by the era. Now that we live in a time where ‘cool’ people watch a television program about ‘nerds’ and get to feel like they know what nerd culture is (and not to mention Seth’s MacFarlane and Green regularly tipping their hats to eighties gems), stuff like this film is starting to see the light again.
As science fiction film and literature have been a big part of my entire life, regular readers will of course have to bear with me through regular reflections on childhood favourites. I have no way of ever knowing exactly how many times I watched it growing up, but Flight of the Navigator probably ranks as one of my top rentals from the time.
The film begins in 1978 as twelve-year-old David Freeman wrestles with regular twelve-year-old problems like talking to girls, trying to get along with his younger brother, and dealing with ignorant dicks making fun of the Bee Gees… okay, so I’m speculating on that last one. It’s 8pm on the Fourth of July, and David is sent by his mother (who true pewpewcatfooders will identify as Veronica Cartwright from Alien and the second Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to collect his little bastard brother.
When his dog, Bruiser, frustrated at not being able to catch a frisbee, attempts to murder David by luring him to the edge of a cliff, the kid plummets into a ravine. A hard cut later, David wakes up, climbs up the cliff face and heads back home. Things get super crazy when he gets there and finds an unfamiliar, but very friendly, elderly couple living in the house instead of his family.
So yeah, we find out that it’s 1986 and that David has been missing for eight years. His family has moved away, there are five hundred new variations of Coca-Cola, disco and punk have evolved into new wave, the amount of fat jokes in childrens’ programming has reached an all-time high, and Sarah Jessica Parker hasn’t yet begun to vilify the television world with Sex in the City.
Right about the same time David resurfaces, a smooth, metallic, pod-shaped alien spacecraft crashes into some electrical equipment and NASA quickly moves in to investigate. When David, re-united with his now haggard-looking family, begins to hear an alien voice calling to him for help, he’s hooked up to machines and it is revealed that, unbeknownst to him, his head is full of star charts and information that no twelve-year-old Earthling should know.
After sneaking off and entering the spacecraft, the ship’s commander, Max, a robotic extension of the ship itself, reveals that David was collected as a specimen and brought to the planet Phaelon for study. What’s more, after the ship’s crash into the electrics, all of its star charts were wiped out and Max needs what’s in David’s head to return the ship and all the lifeforms on board to their respective homes.
I realise it’s a hell of a setup, but that’s what’s so cool about Flight of the Navigator. You know, recently I was a little hard on the film Men In Black for taking too long to set everything up, and to be perfectly honest, once things do get set up, not much of anything happens here either. The difference, however, is that Flight of the Navigator presents a fun, non-menacing adventure and an incredible aesthetic experience that really captures. Albeit, the adventure is brief, but it’s just so super cool.
While it’s true that one of the movie’s greatest charms, aside from the neat concept of David’s sudden eight-year time jump, is its feel-good presentation, the absolute greatest thing about the film are its design and special effects. I realise I’m a bit of a dinosaur by today’s standards but like, dude, even now the effects don’t even really look that dated! Outside, the metallic ship uses early computer-generated effects to move and change shape, foreshadowing the excellent liquid metallic effects that would blow us away in Terminator 2 and The Abyss.
Inside, the ship looks even better. The entire interior design is shiny chrome with marvelously unique eighties aesthetic. Max, although not much more than one of those crane-mounted lights over the dentist chair, is highly expressive in movement and his voice, provided by Paul Reubens (of Pee-wee Herman fame), is fantastic, especially in the beginning when he’s oddly dignified and powerful sounding.
The highlight for many kids, including myself and that Serbian dude, are the creatures that Max has collected and keeps on the ship. They’re all exceptionally detailed puppets and that are quite honestly perfectly designed to speak to the centres of kids’ brains that register gross and adorable, and ultimately capture the imagination of a young person who likes to see strange new things. Ten-to-one, that brief scene where Max shows off his bizarre (and slightly dangerous) creature collection is what the people I encounter who remember this flick remember the most.
And for the record, remember all the cool old music they played in Guardians of the Galaxy? Back in the day, the closest thing you got to that was the fucking Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.”
In closing, Flight of the Navigator is a neat little escapist fantasy, not unlike another classic eighties film, The Last Starfighter. Unlike that film, however, Navigator is quite a mild Disney feel-good picture with no air of menace in its stakes. I’m told they’re remaking the thing, which really bothers me as I’m sure they could come up with their own idea in this modern age. I can’t really tell you if today’s kids can relate to the 1986 film, but I don’t think it has aged enough to necessitate an upgrade. I will totally admit, however, that if such a remake came out in 2016, however, it would be seriously hilarious to hear a Reubens-voiced Max refer to David as “from two thousand and eight” and being “so two thousand and late.” We shall see.
Till then (and well beyond, if I have anything to say about it), Flight of the Navigator stands as a nostalgic classic that peeps from my generation should be able to enjoy with their kids… or on their own with their most cherished, erm, pizza.
See ya later, navigators!