Explore Capricorn Theater’s first theme season with Summer of 1986, a series of short reviews focusing on the summer films released in 1986. Today’s review: Flight of the Navigator.
David Freeman is not much to look at. He isn’t very tall, isn’t very popular and probably might have led a quiet life had it not been for the events of Flight of the Navigator. David will get a chance to do something that sci-fi audiences have dreamed of and like everyone who has gone before him, will find out that time travel is a nightmare. In his darkness, he will make friends with one of the most unique A.I. characters in cinema. He will face one of the most torturous choices that I ever witnessed in a children’s film.
In 1978 David (Joey Cramer), a young boy living in the US is the eldest son in a life of four (father Bill, mother Helen, young brother Jeff and David). He has all the problems that every young boy does: his brother bugs him, girls make him feel funny and life could be less strange. After a good family day out that ends in an argument with Jeff, David takes off on his own only to be scared by Jeff on his way home. He takes a shortcut, falls into a shallow ravine and after waking up, returns home. But there are strangers in his home now and when authorities locate his family, they are all visibly older with Jeff now older than David is. At the same time, a strange metallic ship is found elsewhere in the country that has NASA and the government fascinated. Somehow, David hasn’t aged and it’s connected to the object. So NASA investigator Dr Faraday (Howard Hesseman) brings David to NASA where he can observe the two mysteries together. Too bad both mysteries will escape, together.
The Trimaxon Drone Ship is a thing of alien beauty. In its hovering state, it looks like two shells inverted on each other. At speed, it looks like a chrome arrowhead with few features and moves at inhuman speeds. Its onboard A.I. which David calls MAX (voice of Paul Reubens) for short is a machine able to stay outside of the perils of a linear existence. While he is at NASA being tested, David learns why he and MAX are connected. MAX’s owners, the Phaelons, took David as a specimen for their studies. When they realised he wouldn’t do well outside of linear time, MAX returned him to Earth, no worse the wear. But they filled his head with star charts and failed to realise that time dilation would put David out of his time because they and MAX don’t understand the past, present or future from an emotional or transitive stance. How does a higher intelligence grasp faster than light travel but not the emotional state of a twelve-year-old human child out of time? On the other hand, Kleiser shows how David is utterly lost in this new world of 1986 despite having his family there for him. So two travellers, both of whom are out of place, both with different viewpoints on where and when they are. The film shows that only when logic and emotion merge is the human or emotion condition balanced. When the two meet, David struggles to understand MAX as a logical being while MAX struggles with David as an emotional being. But Paul Reubens gets unleashed about halfway through the film when he “scans” David’s brain for the star charts (he lost his own copies) and gets some of David’s “cultural notes” in the process. From there, the film takes on a new angle as MAX finally learns the lingo of this faraway land and in doing so, figures out what he did wrong. At the same time, David gains a maturity as he realises he can solve the problem of his time jump with MAX’s vast intelligence and David’s problem-solving skills. Through Reubens and Cramer’s rapid-fire dialogue scenes, the two personalities draw closer together in intent and attitudes.
Veronica Cartwright and Cliff DeYoung earn full marks as the scarred parents whose child simply vanished into thin air only to drop (literally in this case) back down to Earth unchanged. They don’t care about Faraday’s reasoning for wanting to keep David on the base for further testing. All they care about is that he’s alive and there with them. Joey Cramer as David is the lynchpin for everyone’s goals and while some of his performance, especially with MAX, could be called awkward, I feel that this is more to do with where David is emotionally as a character. MTV, changing fashions and new trends are all alien to him at this point, points that modern teenagers measure their cultural worth by. For a young man on the cusp of the emotional and mental torment of being a teenager, his guide to surviving the coming onslaught is cute NASA intern Carolyn McAdams (Sarah Jessica Parker) who guides him through with wit and humour. As the film moves on, she becomes the Freeman’s secret spy inside the NASA camp as she sides with them to help David. The people who care about David’s well-being all vouchsafe for him while the ones who try to solve the “mystery” of David treat him as an equation. Again, much like MAX learning about David the person and vice versa, the film seems to equate having an emotional or logical distance with not fully understanding the pain a person can be in by being in a place they didn’t ask to be in. In the end, this schism between emotion and logic sets David and MAX wanting to return David to his new family against NASA and Faraday wanting to keep both MAX and David for study.
Some of the picture does have moments where incredulity is stretched to breaking point. How does NASA have that kind of authority to confine Carolyn to quarters or the Freeman’s to their home? When did the US let defence decisions be made by a civilian government science agency? But these are minor concerns. So what if the script has some points of contention, the film is better for their inclusion as they help give an emotional lift as the stakes get raised the closer David comes to returning home. Should he stay here or risk travelling back in time to fix the mistake MAX made? For a grown person, it would be difficult. For a twelve-year-old child, it’s a Solomon-esque decision. This is where great film memories are made.
Own copy DVD review. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater by purchasing the DVD or blu ray release from Amazon UK (no US blu ray yet). You can also rent the movie from Metrodome UK through Youtube/Google Play Movies by clicking here or rent or buy it from Amazon Video UK here or Amazon Video US here