Robin’s Underrated Gems: Flight of the Navigator (1986)

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Last week, we commemorated our 150th edition of the annual Shouts From the Back Row podcast with an episode where we chronicled our introductions to the world of cinema. In other words, we spent a lot of time discussing our favourite movies from our childhood. One film from the 1980s which got substantial mention from both myself and Gill was the Disney-produced science fiction flick, Flight of the Navigator. This was a film which was only a modest success when it was released in 1986 and while it certainly has its fans, it never attained a large enough level of popularity to become a beloved classic. I saw the film in theatres when it originally came out and it remained a childhood favourite for years. As I grew older, I sort of forgot about it, but many years later, I decided to revisit the film through grown-up eyes. Of course, some childhood favourites from the 1980s do not stand the test of time, but watching Flight of the Navigator today, it… holds up fairly well, actually. It’s true that certain aspects of the film are dated, but it’s got a pretty nifty storyline and is surprisingly intelligent for a production which was an obvious mishmash of E.T., Star Wars and Back to the Future. But, of course, as a kid, combining elements of all those films into one complete package seemed like the coolest idea ever.

Flight of the Navigator opens in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1978. David Freeman (Joey Cramer) is a typical 12-year old kid with nice parents (Cliff De Young, Veronica Cartwright) and an annoying, nerdy 8-year old brother named Jeff (Albie Whitaker), whom he is constantly fighting with. On the evening of July 4, David goes into the woods behind his home to meet up with Jeff, but winds up falling into a steep ravine and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, David returns home and is shocked to discover that an elderly couple is now living there and his family is nowhere to be found. After going to the police, David is soon reunited with his parents, only to discover that they look older, and that his once-younger brother is now four years his senior and played by a different actor (Matt Alder). It turns out that David has somehow awoken in the year 1986, but has no memory of where he’s been for the past eight years and has inexplicably not aged. Meanwhile, a mysterious alien spacecraft has crashed into some electrical towers and is now being kept in a top secret facility at NASA. When NASA scientist Dr. Faraday (Howard Hesseman) finds out about David’s unexplained disappearance, he realizes there is a likely a connection between David and the alien spacecraft, and decides to bring him to the facility for testing.

Of course, this all eventually leads to David entering the alien spacecraft and piloting it with the aid of its robotic commander, whom David nicknames “Max”. Even though the actor providing Max’s voice is credited as “Paul Mall” and speaks normally at first, it soon becomes quite obvious that Max is voiced by other than Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman. And, yeah, the sections with Max are the parts of the film which don’t quite hold up as well after all these years. The first half of Flight of the Navigator is stronger than the second half. Once the answers to most of the story’s mysteries are revealed, the film focuses more on appealing to the younger demographic. Sure, as a kid, the idea of piloting your own spacecraft with a robot voiced by Pee-Wee Herman was awesome, but many of these scenes seem awfully cutesy and juvenile today and often feel like they’re padding out the plot. There’s even a musical montage sequence set to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and, man, I remember a LOT of movies from this era using that song in order to convey that the characters were… uh, getting around.

And, oh yeah, let’s not forget that Flight of the Navigator was also made during the era when virtually every other film had to have an “80s Robot”, no matter how completely out of place it was in the plot (see Rocky IV and Code of Silence). Here, David befriends a NASA intern named Carolyn (played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker), who has a giant robot on wheels called R.A.L.F. (Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator), which David uses to smuggle himself into the facility containing the spacecraft. But dated elements aside, the reason Flight of the Navigator still holds up pretty well is because it’s got a damn good hook for its plot and does a lot of interesting things with it. Even though the film ultimately goes the route of appealing to kids, the first half does an excellent job at building a compelling story for its adult viewers. Flight of the Navigator isn’t really a “scary” film in the traditional sense, but the premise is a pretty frightening idea, especially for kids. What if you woke up thinking you’d only been knocked out for a couple of minutes, but then discovered it was eight years later? What if you suddenly found strangers living in your house? What if your little brother suddenly became your older brother overnight? What if all everything you remembered liking was now obsolete and you were completely out of touch with the world?

One of the best scenes in the movie is when David and Carolyn discuss how much pop culture has changed in the eight years he’s been gone. David watches an MTV music video and is completely baffled by it, and has no idea what Carolyn is talking about when she mentions “Twisted Sister”. It’s funny to ponder that if one was to disappear from 2005 and suddenly wake up today, it probably wouldn’t be too much of a culture shock. However, the world changed a LOT between 1978 and 1986, so you can see what a trying experience it would be for David. For a kid’s movie, the film does a surprisingly thorough and intelligent job at exploring these ideas. The first half does a stellar job at building up a big mystery and slowly piecing together the puzzle, particularly during a riveting scene where NASA uses some sort of mind-reading device to figure out what happened to David. Most of the special effects in Flight of the Navigator are still pretty first-rate and look much better than a lot of the CGI being used today, and the film also contains a pretty engaging lead performance by Joey Cramer, who effectively conveys David’s confusion about his situation. Cramer’s career petered out shortly after this came out and in 2011, he committed fraud and wound up becoming a wanted fugitive by the RCMP! So, in the end, Flight of the Navigator may not be the stellar masterpiece I thought it was when I was eight years old, but it’s still a pretty solid and entertaining effort 27 years later and remains a rather underrated film from that time period. That’s pretty much a testament to how well it succeeds at appealing to both children and adults.

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1 Response to Robin’s Underrated Gems: Flight of the Navigator (1986)

  1. Gill says:

    The culture shock might not be quite as extreme going from 2005 to 2013 as it would be to go from 1978 to 1986, but there would actually be a few things that would be jarring for someone experiencing that. For one thing, there would be a black president, and for another, there would be touchscreens everywhere, since the iPhone only became a publicly available gadget in 2007. Man, time sure flies.

    Also, I just want to chime in with one of my usual compliments to this film: it plays with audience expectations using meta humour. Everyone going into this movie knows it’s about a UFO, and the first third of the movie is filled with fake-outs, where things like frisbees and water towers are deliberately made to look like UFOs to tease the audience.

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