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Film Fossils: ‘Flight of the Navigator’

8 min read

I am a child of the 80s. Being born in 1978 I got to see the rise and fall of the VCR, cassette players, and, unfortunately, the small-town movie theater. I had one that was practically in my backyard, but it shut down in 1983 to make room for a supermarket. However, there was still a very successful single-screen theater a few towns over that my family frequented often. I saw a lot of movies here as well as on VHS tape, and it truly shaped my love for the medium.

Film lovers know there are a ton of blockbusters and masterpieces that came out of the 80s, so many that I’m not going to bother. What I want to discuss are the ones that are fond memories to me but completely unknown to the younger audiences. Ones that are, as my title infers, film fossils.

What is my goal with this endeavor? To see if these are films that stand the test of time and hold up as the wonderful movies I remember from my childhood, or if they are just a nostalgic mess that my younger brain couldn’t process. Either way, I anticipate a fun time revisiting some lesser-known films from my formative years.

The first of these I’d like to discuss is a 1986 film called Flight of the Navigator. Until recently this movie was relatively difficult to find, never making the jump to Blu-ray. However, thanks to Disney Plus, this fossil is finding new life. Fair warning; this article will contain spoilers, so if you want an unblemished viewing I suggest watching it first then coming back to read my thoughts.

Flight of the Navigator follows a 12-year-old boy named David (Joey Cramer) living a fairly stereotypical pre-teen life in 1978. He’s got loving parents, a loyal dog, and an annoying little brother. These tropes are laid on pretty thick in the first 15 minutes, so much so that I started to dread rewatching the movie thinking I had to endure this for the duration. David is asked to retrieve his brother from a neighbor’s house, which he does by walking through the woods for some reason. While walking he confides in his dog Bruiser that his life no longer has any meaning (seriously). After this strange tonal shift, David’s brother scares him and David chases him, only to fall in a ravine and get knocked out cold.

When he comes to, he heads home only to find that an elderly couple is living in his house. After he understandably freaks out he is taken in by the police where he finds out that he has been missing and presumed dead. Eight years have passed, but to David, it only feels like hours. Oh, and he hasn’t aged at all.

I’ll be honest, I forgot about this whole aspect of the film. Once David walks into his old house the tone shifts dramatically and for the better. Joey Cramer sells his fear of the situation and the film doesn’t spoon-feed you any information. It unfolds pretty naturally. I also have to give props to the makeup effects on his aged mom and dad (played respectively by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright and the character acting legend Cliff DeYoung). Not only do the subtle effects look believable but they also help the actors look exhausted and defeated like parents would be if they lost a son.

David is taken to the hospital to attempt to solve the many mysteries surrounding him. While there he gets to see his brother, now older than him. Again, Cramer and Matt Adler (who plays the older version of his brother Jeff) display some genuine emotion here that should be favorably recognized.

Following this sweet scene we are, very abruptly, brought to a field of electrical towers with a massive floating ship made of chrome and kind of shaped like a lemon. NASA is on the scene in the form of the great Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati and Head of the Class; two fossilized TV shows). Turns out this ship took out an aforementioned tower and just stopped. It doesn’t seem to be able to open, but it can easily be moved by hand.

The promotional materials for this film had this ship plastered all over it, but I can’t help but think how cool it would have been to not know there was a spaceship involved at all. This scene would have been a massive shock! Of course, with a title like Flight of the Navigator, I guess we automatically assume some type of aircraft would be involved. Anyways…

After a pretty cool shot of a caravan transporting the ship to NASA, we jump back to David undergoing tests back at the hospital. During this scene, we are teased with the fact that David has information stored in his brain that even he isn’t aware of. With the help of some science-fictionally amazing technology, an image of the lemon ship magically appears on a monitor hooked up to David’s brain. Yeah, it’s as weird and strangely engaging as it sounds. Somehow this image is sent to NASA, printed out on a comically large sheet of paper and handed to Dr. Howard Hesseman.

The NASA docs go to David and his family, now back at home, to try and convince them to conduct more studies. David’s parents don’t like the idea, but David agrees. David also neglects to divulge that he is now hearing voices in his head. With that, David is shipped to NASA and given a prison-like room filled with toys. These toys are there to offset the fact that he cannot call his family unless monitored and that he gets locked in his room when not being tested.

The next day David is being tested and, much like the earlier scene, his brain is connected to a fleet of monitors. As he is being asked questions the answers inexplicably start popping up on these screens. We also start seeing star charts, alien languages, and mentions of a planet named Phaelon which we find out is 560 light-years away. We also find out that David traveled there and back and, with the help of some techno-speak, explains why he hasn’t aged.

If you are thinking that this all sounds very adult and complex for a Disney movie aimed at kids, I agree. However, all of this is presented in a tight and very accessible way by director Randal Kleiser (Grease). It’s a very intriguing sci-fi story that, so far, has avoided talking down to its viewers. Rewatching it I was very impressed with how engaging it was. However, things change pretty quickly once David discovers the lemon ship.

Once David realizes he won’t be going home anytime soon (compounded by the fact that he is still hearing voices which he now believes are the ship) he devises a plan to break out of his room. I neglected to mention that David befriends a NASA employee when he gets to the base. I neglected to mention this because this character Carolyn (played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker) is pointless. Her sole purpose is to show off this rover robot called R.A.L.F. (Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator) which David climbs into to escape his room. Seriously, that’s her whole purpose. They try to shoehorn her in at the end of the movie to show that she’s one of the good guys, but it doesn’t work.

Anyway, David gets to a hangar and finds the lemon ship. Naturally, it opens for him and it starts talking to him. The ship is a Trimaxion drone ship, so David nicknames it Max. Max explains that it needs the star charts stored in David’s head to get back to Phaelon. David agrees, but only if Max will take him home.

This is where the movie completely falls apart. To fill out the 90-minute run time, this spaceship joyride is padded with junk. Max gets a funny voice for some reason. There’s a musical number set to The Beach Boys. There are weird creatures from other planets on the ship that eat David’s hat (oh, and David steals one of these things because it’s cute and won’t kill him). There’s scatological humor that comes out of nowhere. All of this is written around a ship that can travel 99 times the speed of light but can’t outrun 1986 NASA goons?

This all culminates in a standoff at David’s house (NASA beat them there after all). David knows the only way out is to have Max take him back to 1978. Cue the “it’s too dangerous” cliché, but he does it anyway and wakes up back in the woods right where he was knocked out at the beginning of the movie. He rushes home to find his parents and young Jeff in their boat ready to go shoot off some fireworks. Cue the mushy ending, complete with an E.T. ripoff shot of the lemon ship making a rainbow in the night sky.

So let’s revisit my original goal; does the movie hold up? Looking at it as the film I loved when I was a kid, the answer is. . . kind of. The story is very intriguing, the makeup is spot on, the effects are pretty slick, and there is even some nice puppetry on display. However, with the exception of David and his family, the film is full of cookie-cutter villains and pointless supporting characters, and when Max starts inexplicably talking like Pee-Wee Herman you’ll root for the ship to crash (interestingly Max was voiced by Pee-Wee himself, Paul Reubens, in a role credited as “Paul Mall”).

So Flight of the Navigator is not a total loss. You could do way worse when it comes to obscure 80s kids movies, but it, unfortunately, loses its way once it decides to start pandering to its target audience. I’ve always admired movies that give young audiences a bit more credit. If you want an alien movie that does that, I firmly believe your best bet is E.T. That one’s always worth a rewatch!

Do you plan on revisiting Flight of the Navigator? Did I inspire you to seek it out and watch it for the first time? What fossil would you like to see uncovered in a future article? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter and Instagram and be sure to download the Kernel App to keep up with the latest releases!

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