When you’re a child, you imbibe a plethora of entertainment that often helps shape the core of your personality. Some of that entertainment is wildly popular, but some, you find, doesn’t always stand the test of time. You know, like Street Sharks. (My partner insists this was a thing. I have no memory of it whatsoever.)
Flight of the Navigator is one of those films for me. When I bring it up, I’m often met with vacant stares or vague recollections. There aren’t many people reaching out to grab my hands, screaming, “Oh my god THAT movie! I LOVE that movie!” But nevertheless, I will adore it with every breath in my body unto the end of time. And unlike most of those odd Disney live action films of the 70s and 80s, Flight of the Navigator seems to get better with age.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching this film, I’ll break it down: A twelve-year-old boy named David (Joey Cramer) is told to go meet his annoying kid brother Jeff on the way home from the house of a family friend. His brother decides to scare him in the wooded area between their houses and David falls into a ravine, knocked unconscious. When he wakes up and arrives home, he finds out that eight years have passed—but he hasn’t aged. His family take him in for testing at a hospital and his brain produces the image of a spaceship on a hospital computer. NASA is notified, as they have that exact spaceship in their care. At NASA, further testing reveals that David’s head is full of starcharts, and that David has subconscious memories of being taken to a planet called Phaelon at light speed, accounting for why the time passage on Earth did not affect him. NASA wants to keep David for studying, but the small silver ship in their hangar calls to David telepathically, and he gets on board. Once there, he meets the robot persona of the ship (voiced by Paul Reubens), which he calls “Max” for short. Max keeps calling David the “Navigator” for reasons the kid can’t figure out. They escape from the NASA facility and Max explains to David that he is responsible for collecting samples of life across various worlds and bringing them to Phaelon for testing, then returning them home via time travel as though they never left. The scientists on Phaelon wanted to see what would happen to a human if they filled its brain up with starcharts, so they tried that on David and then sent him back home—the problem was, Max realized that a human body was likely too fragile to travel through time, so he simply dropped David off eight years later.
After leaving David, Max accidentally crashed the ship while observing flowers, and erased all of his own starcharts. So he needs what’s in David’s brain to get home (hence referring to him as “the Navigator”). David agrees to hand them over on the condition that Max return him to his family before he goes. When Max scans David for the charts, he ends up absorbing a bit of human personality as well, making him far… quirkier than before. Together, the two bicker over navigation, and try their best to get David to his family’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. David meets some of the other species on board that are due to be returned. One of them—a puckmaren—had his home destroyed by a comet and bonds with David. Carolyn, a young intern at the NASA facility (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) who befriended David, tells his family of the ship’s escape with David on it. As a result, his family is confined to their house. David calls his brother and tells him he’ll need a signal to find their home once the ship makes it to Fort Lauderdale, so Jeff sets off fireworks from the roof. When David and Max arrive, they find NASA officials waiting to take David in again. Worried that he’ll be tested and held there for the remainder of his life, David asks Max to make the time jump regardless of the danger. David survives and gets to go home to his family in time for 4th of July fireworks—he also gets to keep the puckmaren.
This was a film I discovered due to hours spent watching the Disney Channel. My dad recorded it off the TV for me, so for many years, I only had my worn out homemade VHS copy to verify its existence. As a child, I had an unshakeable assumption that I required a robot friend, an alien friend, and my own tiny spaceship. This was entirely Flight of the Navigator‘s fault. (I am still in the market for all of these things, by the way, if anyone knows where to find them.)
For a minuscule movie on Disney’s radar that only came to them via an indie production house, Flight of the Navigator is a better film than it has any right to be. Most of this comes down to a choice to buck practically of all your average children’s fiction tropes, especially in the genre realm. David isn’t an orphan, or a special-destiny kid. He doesn’t run away from home, or deal with a fair share of abuse from uncaring relatives. He’s just a boy, with an average, loving family (and a pain-in-the-butt brother), who happens to get picked up as a science experiment by an alien drone ship. The act of bravery he commits at the end of the film is a very small thing when all is said and done; yes, he risks his life, but for the sake of taking back said normal upbringing, and returning to the family he loves.
As far as the (frankly quite intricate) plot is concerned, Flight of the Navigator is almost like two movies in one—a creepy sci-fi mystery and a BFF road trip comedy all squished up together. It pays homage to certain popular genre narratives of the time (E.T., Close Encounters) without stealing from them wholesale, winking at the audience’s familiarity with those tropes. When we begin, the film sets a deeply ominous tone—there’s the walk through the dark to pick up Jeff from the neighbors, David waking up to the realization that his parents are suddenly older and completely shocked to find him alive, the hospital tests David goes through, his fear at producing foreign images from the recesses of his mind. There’s the hope of answers at NASA, only to find that the scientists there have no intention of letting him go until they have the information they want. All of this is a slow burn, giving the audience time to identify with what David is feeling, with what a nightmare his life has become in the space of a few misplaced hours.
As the audience avatar, David is such a well-written, well-acted young character. He’s at the point in his life where he’s starting to grow up a little and show interest in girls, but he still retains all the naiveté you’d expect from a child. He’s permitted to be emotional about situations that would be genuinely traumatizing. For all that he goes through, his outbursts, anger, worries, are still those of a young person. His desires are understandable for many children his age and situation; he wants to be told the truth, he wants his life to return to normal, he wants to know why so much is being asked of him by people he doesn’t know or trust.
David’s family occupy the center of the story, and the film never shies away from how devastating it was for them to lose a son, only to get him back under such strange circumstances. The wrinkles and gray hairs his parents bear read more like the passage of grief than time, and they stand by David’s choices throughout the film despite clearly wanting an answer to this mystery themselves. Then there’s Jeff, the little brother who is suddenly sixteen years old, forced to become a big brother to the boy who was once his big brother. None of this is ever played for laughs; while Jeff is a snotty little brat when the story starts, the teenaged version is reassuring and supportive, the perfect confidante for David. The eight years has affected him, too—he tells his brother about how his parents had him put up Missing posters of his brother every Saturday for years after his disappearance, and how he never forgave himself for pulling such a stupid prank on him.
Because David’s bond with his family is strong, the opening of the film feels threatening, taking away everything that creates a baseline for our young protagonist. We don’t root for David running away in a spaceship because his life is awful and he deserves better—getting in that alien ship is actually a bolt toward safety, familiarity, home. So even though he only gets the idea to escape once the ship starts telepathically calling to him in the creepiest way possible, you’re still clamoring for him to get into NASA’s little delivery-bot (his name is R.A.L.F.) and roll over to the hangar where Max is being kept.
While I love NASA as much as the next space-happy nerd, it’s kind of fun to watch them be the evil guys for a change. Although that’s something of an illusion, too; NASA’s Doctor Faraday is only truly guilty of a poor bedside manner, of failing to understand how any of this might come off to a frightened little boy. Unlike E.T., where the government comes in with guns blazing, the real danger in this movie comes down to perspective. It all seems frightening because David is a child and perceives it that way. The people who work for NASA are genuinely concerned for David’s safety, for the importance of the ship’s discovery to humanity. They simply don’t have the resources to keep the situation contained.
There are very few children’s films like this anymore; pure adventure stories with little actual danger attached. And the idea of an alien robot with untold galaxies of knowledge getting lost on our planet is even more fun when the peril isn’t so immediate—the road trip section of the plot occurs because all of Max’s knowledge of Earth comes from David’s mind transfer. “I just know what’s in your head,” says Max, “and you don’t know the way from your house to a 7-Eleven.” (David also got a D in geography, making getting lost on his own planet even more plausible.)
Because David has to fly the ship due to Max’s practical uselessness on Earth (and sudden personality shift), they get a chance to spend time together with the added benefit of David GETTING TO FLY A SPACESHIP. Pretty much all of my childhood dreams come to life. But what’s better is that David gets time to enjoy it—most of their trip is just cruising around. He’s not saving the world by blowing up a threatening mothership or learning how to battle armies. He’s calling home from payphones and eating candy bars for dinner. He’s learning how to read maps with his little puckmaren buddy. He’s teaching his new friend Max about music.
Did I neglect to mention that music break? The one where David has Max pick up radio signals until he comes across The Beach Boys, and they dance around and fly through mountain ranges to “I Get Around”? It’s one of those childhood-forming sequences. An I-want-my-life-to-be-full-of-moments-like-this sort of sequence. I don’t think I’ve ever road-tripped without blasting that song, and this movie is entirely to blame. The only thing that’s missing is my robot friend. Also my strange electronic score, penned by Alan Silvestri (it’s so good, you should listen to it).
Paul Reubens was picked to do the voice of Max with good reason, and it wasn’t simply because Pee-Wee Herman was such a big deal in the 80s. (Though I do remember recognizing the voice instantly, growing up on that show as so many kids did.) The appearance of Max gives the film a sharp course correction into the comedic realm, and the sudden change is part of the film’s charm. The success of that turnover is impressive—films that shift tonally or thematically from one extreme to another often don’t pan out for audiences. Somehow, Flight of the Navigator manages to pull off that pendulum swing with little effort, and make something eerie into something fun. It’s like a reverse Twilight Zone episode; from something horrific, we find something extraordinary. Uplifting science fiction is meant to trigger that response in us, and when it does, it’s such a rewarding experience.
What was unknown to David becomes known, and by the end, he has befriended what frightened him. None of these themes are hammered home, they simply exist as a natural part of the narrative. David embraces his circumstance because he is young enough to retain his flexibility. He doesn’t put the ship in a hangar and monitor its every fluctuation, he engages with it. None of this amounts to good science, but the film isn’t trying to give kids a lesson in brain usage and lightspeed theory, even if they’re both mentioned—it’s turning on more fundamental values of home, friendship, and exploration.
And when David takes that final risk and travels back in time, he truly makes it home. Like some alternate universe Dorothy Gale, he comes to understand that home isn’t simply people—it’s a place and a time and a feeling.
Only this time around, he’ll have a little puckmaren to keep him company. Don’t tell.
This article was originally published in April 2016; we’re re-sharing in light of the news that Flight of the Navigator is getting a remake.