Film Review: Flight of the Navigator

Despite aging considerably, Flight of the Navigator still retains all the charm it held when you first saw it as a child. And what does it have to say about American anti-intellectualism?

Cover of "Flight of the Navigator"
Cover of Flight of the Navigator

In my twenties I often complained, to myself mostly, that I didn’t get to see movies I wanted to often enough. Most of my friends, as much as I love them, were for safe choices at the cinema – all action spectaculars and silly comedies. A sort of group-think comes into play – no one wants to risk something not everyone will like. I had no chance of seeing anything thought-provoking, experimental or different in any way.

What probably made it more annoying was that, on the rare occasions that I did convince them to try something else, they’d quickly forget how much they enjoyed my suggestion, even when that film later appears amongst their DVD collection. But they never forget when something I wanted to see disappointed them!

Though when recently watching Flight of the Navigator, for just the second time in my life, I was reminded that this was not unique to adulthood. As a child, visiting video stores with friends, we would inevitably rent something we’d seen and enjoyed a dozen times already – Star Wars, Gremlins, Karate Kid, Indiana Jones, etc. Even then I could not convince anyone that the risks of trying new things in life are well worth it.

Back then, Flight of the Navigator was a film whose cover picture on the video box intrigued me. I had not seen it before, I had not spotted it repeated on television and I could not convince anyone to rent it with me. It became the first film I rented and watched myself, something that became much more common in later life. And my recollection was that I rather enjoyed it.

It is the story of 12-year-old David Freeman, who falls into a ditch in a wooded area of his neighbourhood. He climbs out and returns home only to find another family living there. When he tracks down his parents, they have aged and his younger brother is now a teenager. It is now 1986, eight years since he fell into the ditch, but David has neither aged nor does he have any memory of the missing years.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists have been called to the site of a crashed UFO. They hear about David’s case and a link to the crashed ship and take him in for further study. Though still confused, David comes to realise the ship is his only chance of returning home to his own time and embarks on one last adventure.

The film features Veronica Cartwright as David’s mother, Howard Hesseman as the NASA scientist and Sarah Jessica Parker as a NASA employee and clearly something of a Madonna/Cyndi Lauper fan. Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens also has a role as the voice of the spacecraft/alien, Max.

By the way…

Recently, I’ve been reading about anti-intellectualism in America. To outsiders, the prevalence of creationists, young-Earthers, global-warming sceptics and anti-vaccination lobbyists, and their profound success, seems a horrid cocktail of the bizarre, the laughable and the terrifying. As to causes, most complain of an endemic cultural issue going back generations and ingrained in the political and educational infrastructure. Many also point to the 1980’s Reagan era as being a time of recent divergence, particularly regarding environmental issues. But I wondered if anyone has investigated this issue from a popular-culture point of view?

After all, in Flight of the Navigator – as also in that other alien-encounter film with the child protagonist of the era, E.T. – it is the scientists that are the villains. Scientists invade homes, destroy families, lie to the public, abduct and experiment on children. Their unchecked pursuit of knowledge has corrupted them and their moral outlook (the unchecked pursuit of wealth, fame and material possessions through debt is fine by the way). Scientists are anti-freedom, a freedom that is to be found in the heart of a young boy and best exemplified when he liberates poor frogs from a life of imprisonment and dissection in the death camp that is the laboratory. Worse, scientists are so blinded and stupefied by their ‘facts’ that they do not recognise the ‘truth’ – a truth so simple and easy to understand a child can do it by feeling for what is ‘right’ rather than thinking about it.

Anyway, something to ponder… and keep an eye on.

When my wife and I spotted the film appearing on one of our movie channels we recorded it with a little hesitation. Unlike me, my wife had watched Flight of the Navigator over and over again as a child and had loved it. But experiencing a childhood favourite as an adult is a different matter.

How many cherished childhood stories are destroyed when experiencing them again as adults? The one I hear about most often are the stories of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. As a child they were fantastic. As an adult they are puerile and transparent with coercive forethought. Would revisiting Flight of the Navigator as adults still be fun, or would it destroy a fond childhood memory?

We needn’t have worried. True, the film has aged and the special effects are very primitive by current standards. The dialogue is juvenile and cheesy at times and the plot has holes in it. The aliens do look like they were made by Jim Henson (Henson was in his prime during this period having completed The Dark Crystal (1982), many Muppet projects and was working on Labyrinth (also 1986), I am not aware of a direct link between him and this film but his influence is clear). At only 90 minutes its brevity is to its benefit as the story is bereft of fluff and the flaws and parts that have not aged well are not given time to weigh heavily. Overall, Flight of the Navigator retains all the charm to defend our memory of it from childhood.

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