Recapturing the magical innocence of a much cherished 80s gem
If people ever ask me what the first film I saw at the cinema was, I usually lie. Technically, the answer should be Disney’s Bambi — I saw it at my local four-screen when it was re-released in the early-to-mid-Eighties — but the answer I prefer to give, the more of-its-time answer, was actually the focus of my second cinema visit, and that film was Flight of the Navigator. My relationship with Randal Kleiser’s much-loved 1986 SF adventure is a most special one. I would have been a mere six years old when it came out (the UK got it in 1987), and my memories of seeing it are slim to none. All I get when I try to think about that day is a wonderful feeling, an essence, a sensation. For me, any kind of serious critical analysis of the film will always be unavoidably clouded by a personal love for it that goes beyond admiring its qualities. I mean, I love this film like I love pizza. And I’m not the only one. After a modest performance at the box office, Flight of the Navigator became one of those films that really grew in stature on home video, and eventually television.
Let’s travel at light-speed to three years later: Christmas 1990. It was the first Christmas where the Fletcher household was in possession of a fully-working VHS player. No more second-hand Betamax players which for some reason didn’t record ITV (and as such I couldn’t tape anything Ghostbusters related) now we were armed with E-180 Memorex blank tapes, ready to record all the wonderful movies that were due to get their network premieres that Christmas — Masters of the Universe, Innerspace, the very long-awaited first screening of E.T., The Lost Boys (my sister’s choice — definitely not mine) and of course, Flight of the Navigator. So vital was this particular Christmas in my cinematic upbringing that even the copies of the Radio Times and TV Times (back in the days when BBC and non-BBC channel listings were designated their own, separate magazines) were treated as sacred texts, but unlike Grandpa in The Lost Boys, who didn’t need a TV because he had a TV guide, I was absolutely glued to my set for those two or so weeks. Also, while I’d already seen Flight of the Navigator once before, this Christmas TV screening was my first proper, focused, ‘I can actually remember this’ viewing of the film. And what a viewing. It’s easy to see why this film is so loved. It’s imaginative, intriguing, funny, emotional, spectacular and it has funny aliens in it too. Plus, it has one of the all-time great synth soundtracks, but more on that later.
We begin in 1978 — Carter is president, the Bee Gees are at the top of their game and dog frisbee competitions are all the rage. 12-year old David Freeman has the usual boyhood issues: an unrequited crush, an obnoxious scuzz-bucket of a younger brother (whose resemblance to a young Alan Carr has been oft-noted by UK fans) and an otherwise great dog called Bruiser who can’t catch a frisbee to save his life. Still, he does live in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, his wonderful parents own a boat and later in the day the whole family are going to watch the 4th of July fireworks whilst having a barbecue. Yeah, I’ll admit I was a little jealous of this kid. I mean, the parents even let their children play out all day and didn’t mind them walking through scary forests and across railroads at night. It’s during a nocturnal walk, such as this that David slips and falls into a ravine whilst looking for that dorky brother of his, where he lays unconscious for what seems like maybe a few minutes. Yet when he returns home everything’s changed. His family have gone. There’s some old couple living in his house instead. Panicked and frightened, David is picked up by the police, who realise that he is the same David Freeman who’s been registered as missing for the last eight years… that’s right, it’s now 1986!
David: You crashed while looking at flowers?
Reunited with his older, more shaken and now utterly relieved parents, David can’t fathom what has happened. No one can to be honest, and NASA are particularly interested, especially since David’s reappearance has timed with the crash-landing of a UFO in the area. Determined to find the truth, NASA persuade David’s parents to allow him to be studied and observed in their facility, where analysis of his brain waves reveal that he was taken to a distant planet named Phaelon (which is over 500 light years away, give or take), and that his mind is filled with a huge amount of unrecognisable star charts and data. The alien responsible for all of this lies dormant in the crashed UFO, which is locked nearby in a NASA warehouse. And David can hear him calling…
This first half of Flight of the Navigator, despite its share of laughs and warmth, is a surprisingly ominous and mildly nightmarish affair. After the blissful domesticity of its opening ten minutes, David’s world falls apart spectacularly, and from thereon in the poor lad is confused, upset, trapped, exploited and lied to regularly. Oh sure, his family still love him and are overjoyed by his return, but NASA (who surprisingly lent their name to a rather suspicious and heartless cinematic depiction of themselves) are far too interested in answers to their burning questions (where has he been? why hasn’t he aged?) to worry much about what this poor lad must be going through emotionally. Though I should add that David’s temporary housing, although it’s more of a prison cell than anything, does boast MTV, loads of toys and junk food on demand (delivered by a cute purple-permed Sarah Jessica Parker and an equally cute robot servant named R.A.L.F), so at the time I thought there were worse places to be imprisoned.
The second half of the film, most likely the half that people best remember, is when David locates the spacecraft that’s calling to him, which opens its door and produces some seriously cool looking liquid metal floaty stairs for him to walk on. Here, the spacecraft’s central computer the Trimaxian Drone Ship (swiftly shortened to Max) reveals to David that he was taken away and had his brain scanned for research purposes but thanks to the problems regarding light speed travel, what was only a two-hour trip for David spanned eight years back on Earth. Additionally, the spacecraft’s recent collision into a set of telegraph wires had led to all of Max’s research data being erased, so David’s brain, which conveniently was filled up with precious information beforehand as an experiment to see how much spare room a human brain has (it’s 90%), is now required to fill in the gaps in Max’s memory banks.
From the moment the spacecraft breaks free from its confinement and shoots itself miles above the earth and into space (and back down again), we’re flying high and the rest of the film is a joy, and not just because of the brilliant, engaging and natural chemistry between the occasionally petulant but understandably overwhelmed David and the increasingly animated, super-intelligent but goofy Max. We get to see a wild range of aliens in one scene — including a tiny, adorable orphaned creature, a huge singing eyeball, a snot monster and a ravenous, belching mini-beast. Then there’s the ship itself, a shape-shifting masterclass of sleek, futuristic design that still looks amazing, both outside and inside. The actual brain scan stuff is almost hilariously simple when it comes (think scanning a barcode, only even easier), so the real tension concerns the matter of returning home safe and sound without Max being captured by NASA’s stooges, as well as also coming to terms with the fact that David’s likely to be the subject of endless tests for the rest of his life. So what can David do? Despite the potentially fatal consequences, David risks travelling back in time to the exact moment when he was originally taken.
Max: I know you are, but what am I?
I used to find David’s rejection of his new life utterly sad when I was younger — his parents are desperately pleading with him to stay, but David knows he can’t. Eight years of his life have been snatched from him, and given that he’s never going to be left alone by NASA, you can’t really blame him for stepping back into the spacecraft. But still, I felt terrible for his family, who in this incarnation are going to be erased from existence. Admittedly, they’re going to be replaced with much happier and more content versions of themselves, ones who will never have to live through those eight years of hell, and it’s true that their heartbreak over David’s departure will be short-lived, but it still breaks my heart. For his family, this is a horrible ending to a long, drawn-out and tragic turn of events. Strong stuff for a U certificate film, I always thought. David sticks to his decision though, and goes headfirst backwards through time in a sequence that back then felt like my own version of 2001′s climactic Stargate journey, albeit infinitely less trippy, a lot shorter and with a less mind-scrambling conclusion. In fact, David’s tale has just about the happiest ending ever. He’s back with his family, back with his brother, back in time for fireworks and he’s even brought one of the aliens home with him — the cute one, not the one with all the snot or the one that ate his hat. Hilariously, Max’s ship hovers above the scene, with him shouting out ‘seeya later, Navigator!’ from the skies with a voice so loud surely everybody in Fort Lauderdale heard it, and the film then ends with a freeze-frame — weird how so few movies end this way these days, probably because it’s synonymous with cheesy episode resolutions on TV. Yet it’s just one example of the film’s sheer wholesomeness, it’s innocence.
I think Flight of the Navigator’s innocence is what makes it so special. This film plays out totally straight, and by that I don’t mean that it’s humourless — not in the slightest — it’s just that it doesn’t treat its characters or plot with flippancy; it totally believes in itself, and by the time David takes off in his new spaceship, the effect is exhilarating and the sense of release fully earned and rewarded. It has so much of what makes a children’s film so appealing to its audience, both credible (crushes, sibling rivalry, being separated from family) and incredible (fantastic creatures, spaceships, time travel). I’ll be honest, given the film’s relatively complex tale of relativity in time and space, I’m surprised I understood any of it back when I saw it at the cinema. In fact, I probably didn’t. The intricacies of the science stuff (which makes the film just as rewarding for me as an adult today), isn’t delved into too deeply so as to alienate younger viewers, so I probably just appreciated the more emotional stuff, like what it must be like for a boy to be separated from his family for eight years (even though it’s only been a matter of hours for him) and of being stuck in hospital and not being able to go home. The strengths of these scenes are aided greatly by the performances.
Joey Cramer’s performance shouldn’t be underestimated. He’s so natural and sympathetic as David. I believe in his situation, his plight and frustration utterly. Supporting performances are warm and amiable: the always dependable Veronica Cartwright and Cliff de Young as David’s parents; Matt Adler as David’s younger brother (who, in the passing eight years, is now his older brother); Parker’s living, breathing embodiment of all that is ’80’s — these characters feel like real people, not cut-outs. Even Howard Hesseman’s NASA scientist Dr Faraday, who could have been the out-and-out villain of the piece, isn’t painted with broad strokes and is certainly not a boo-hiss bad guy; really, he’s just somewhat lacking in the old empathy department. And of course there’s Paul Reubens, aka hugely popular US TV entertainer Pee Wee Herman, as Max, although he’s sneakily credited as Paul Mall in the closing titles. To be honest, his vocals are unrecognisable to begin with, but after scanning David’s brain and picking up contemporary culture references in the process, his voice starts to become more wacky and familiar. He even does that ‘Hur-hur’ exclamation that Pee Wee was so fond of.
Another, major element to Navigator‘s success is the absolutely glorious score. Alan Silvestri is still one of the major Hollywood players today thanks to his contributions to Marvel’s Avengers series, but for me, he was at his absolute best during the Eighties. His work shifted from the formidable orchestral sweep of Back to the Future, Predator and Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the irresistible all-synth tunes he composed for The Delta Force and of course, Flight of the Navigator. Few film themes are as likely to bring me out in giddy pleasure as Silvestri’s opening title music. It bounces like the very best video game music (think Sonic 2 from years later) and kicks off the film in irresistible fashion. The sheer ebullience and sunshine that beams from this theme… it just makes me pine for the innocence of my youth, for summer holidays, barbecues and get-togethers, even if I was, in reality, just as bad at catching frisbees as Bruiser. Another classic theme from this film is the driving, glittering, super-catchy ‘Robot Romp’, when David stows away inside R.A.L.F to get to Max’s spacecraft. Both the main theme and this are reprised to wonderful effect for the end credits. Ah yes, those end credits!
I’m going to take a moment to moan about how some terrestrial TV channels in the UK used to fuck with the end credits of movies. BBC 2 and Channel 4 treated their films with respect — always uncut and almost always with their credits played in full. BBC1, on the other hand, would speed the credits up so that they’d be over in quick time, which usually meant the music playing alongside them would have to be cut short. ITV on the other hand would clumsily edit their credits so that, after the cast of characters were done with, the bulk of the titles would be excised so that they would be over quicker. Again, same thing, whatever music was playing over this would have to be faded out early. If the credits were played out over a black screen, then ITV’s nefarious editing chicanery could be executed pretty handily, but then there were films where the credits played out over live action, and it was these examples where the credits couldn’t really be tampered with, and as such would usually be left untouched.
Flight of the Navigator‘s end credits sequence, which is played out over spectacular aerial footage of skylines, cityscapes and oceans, beginning at day and gradually crossing over into night time, was therefore always allowed to unfurl naturally, with Silvestri’s glorious music playing from start to finish. I loved these end credits. There was always something so wonderful and thrilling (and sad, because the movie was ending) about the elegant, airborne beauty of these visuals. It was like we were flying ourselves. These credits also played out like we were on Max’s spaceship, moving up, through, above the clouds and back down again, taking in all sights of Earth before leaving forever, and as such it felt like the credits were really part of the movie, not just some post-script. I mean, how could you fuck with these credits. Simple — you didn’t. Compliance?
Max and David: David: I did not mean take us under the ocean.. I just asked for a place where they won’t find us.
Max: This was the first suggested place from my data banks..
David: Will this thing leak???
Max: I do not leak.. You leak! Remember?
The film itself is strangely timeless and impossible to be messed with. It has a modest, natural, wonderful charm that many of us fell for back then. The fact that it wasn’t a blockbuster at the time of release makes some kind of sense. It’s the kind of film that wins you over in small ways, and soon enough they become big ways, and before you know it, you’re looking at a childhood favourite. It’s not an enormous spectacle (special effects are used sparingly but very effectively), there are no big stars (but plenty of comfortably recognisable ones), no big set-pieces or show-stopping moments, it’s just a very well written, perfectly executed gem of a movie that draws you in, keeps you intrigued and rewards you with plenty of heart, humour and of course, that effervescent ’80s charm that’s so appealing it’s no wonder so many modern-day films and shows want to replicate it, to recreate the optimism, sparkle and youthful, pop-culture drenched excitement of the past.
There’s talk of reviving it. Stranger things have happened in the remake world, but I doubt lightning would strike twice in the same way in this instance. Flight of the Navigator is a perfect snapshot of 1980s family entertainment, so very much of its time, and of my childhood, that it makes me just as sad as it makes me happy to revisit it, because that’s all I can do — revisit it. I can’t relive it. That’s the sting of nostalgia, I suppose…