I’ve written before (several times, I think) about how a lot of my childhood movie viewing involved catching up on the family-friendly blockbuster hits of the ’80s. But some stuff slipped through the net — or maybe didn’t slip through, but so totally failed to lodge itself in my memory that I don’t remember I ever saw it. We’ll never know which is the case. Either way, Flight of the Navigator is the latest title to fit that bill. It’s not bad, but I might’ve liked it more if I’d seen it as a kid.
The film is split more or less into two halves. It begins in 1978, when 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer) goes into the woods near his Florida, knocks himself out, and returns home later that evening only to find it’s now 1986. Obviously, doctors can’t explain how he hasn’t aged a day in the eight years he’s been missing. Meanwhile, NASA encounter a spaceship near those woods. Could the two be connected? Maybe it’d be a more interesting film if they weren’t…
Anyway, both end up at a NASA research facility, and with the ship calling out to David, he manages to sneak out with the help of an intern (an early screen appearance by a young Sarah Jessica Parker, surprisingly cute and likeable) and flies off in the ship (voiced by Paul Reubens, credited as “Paul Mall” to obscure his involvement, for whatever reason). Their adventures make up about the second half of the film. Not that they’re really “adventures” — it’s mostly David hanging out with the ship, doing some silly stuff while failing to navigate home. There are some nice moments here, but some cringey ones too.
The standout aspect is the design of the ship, both inside and out, which is well-realised onscreen. Obviously these days it would be achieved with swishy CGI, but the film’s mix of models, practical sets, and early digital effects is done well for its time. Things like the highly-reflective inside of the ship are all the more impressive knowing they couldn’t just shoot whatever they wanted then digitally remove the crew. And the fact that they couldn’t just magic up anything they wanted for the exterior shots, either, makes the effects more restrained and pointed in how and when they’re deployed, which overall is to the story’s benefit.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of Alan Silvestri’s score, which is badly dated from the opening cue onwards, never recovering. However, you could do a great “how music changes tone” demo with some parts. For example, when David escapes NASA in the ship, it’s shot with a lot of drama — thick chains breaking, lights crashing down, people running in fear — but Silvestri scores it with an E.T.-esque “isn’t this magical” type of cue. If you were to replace it with a dramatic, exciting, or even scary track, it would certainly work, but with an entirely different feel. It’s possibly deliberate that the music and visuals here sit so at odds, the contrast being exactly what they were going for; though, considering the rest of the film is formally straightforward, I can’t say I’m convinced.
Altogether, I think Flight of the Navigator may have been entertaining for preteens in the ’80s and ’90s, but surely anyone older could only love it because of nostalgia from watching it at that age; and it’s probably a bit slow-paced for today’s youth. It looks like they’re planning a remake (it’s been in the works since 2009, but last September was announced for Disney+), and, honestly, for once maybe that’s a good idea: there’s potential in this concept that’s unrealised by this version. Whether a direct-to-streaming movie will handle it better, who knows, but it’s worth a shot.