Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Dir. by Randal Kleiser
Starring Joey Cramer, Howard Hesseman and Paul Reubens (credited as “Paul Mall”)
12-year-old David Freeman hits his head in 1978 and wakes up in 1986, having not aged a day. Confronted by a family that thinks he’s dead and a strange world he doesn’t know, he learns that he was abducted by an alien drone, which needs the star charts inserted in his head to complete its mission and return home.
I have absolutely no idea when I first watched this. I’d guess on the Disney Channel, considering it was distributed by Disney in the States, but I remember it mainly for the taped-off-TV version we had. I watched it a lot as a pre-teen, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it since before I was in high school. Still remember a lot of scenes from it, though.
What a wonderful, charming movie. I remembered the basic plot outline, a bunch of individual scenes, and that Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was the voice of the alien. What I didn’t remember is how good the movie was.
As the titular navigator, Joey Cramer does an amazing job capturing not only the E.T.-esque wonder of a child befriending an alien, but also the genuine confusion and fear of one who’s been displaced in time, forced to engage with a world he doesn’t recognize and family that might as well be strangers. That first scene where he comes home to find that an elderly couple is now living in his house, with him frantically running through the rooms, is one of the most realistic acting jobs by a child actor I’ve ever seen. He very convincingly runs through the gamut of emotions, from surprise, to disbelief, to mock-amusement at the practical joke he assumes is being played on him, to finally breaking down in the bathroom and sobbing for his parents.
I’m also glad that Paul Reubens didn’t grate on me nearly as much as I feared he would. I remember him as being in most of the movie, but in reality his recognizable voice work doesn’t begin until over two-thirds through the movie, when Davey and the robotic pilot Max have a mind-meld to transfer the star charts back to the probe. It’s only then that Reubens begins his Pee Wee-style line delivery, as Max starts to act like a particularly obnoxious teenager for about twenty minutes. Before this, Reubens had affected an almost Spock-like delivery of his lines, and I must confess that I definitely enjoyed this version of Max better. However, I was able to tolerate the other Max, as it really wasn’t in that much of the film and had frequent cut-aways to Davey’s family or the NASA goons.
Speaking of which, I found it a little odd that NASA would be the “evil government agency” of choice for this movie. They seem to have much more in the way of resources than they should have, especially the sort of field agents that you’d expect from the FBI or CIA. Yes, NASA would probably be the ones to investigate a crashed alien ship in the 1980s, but I doubt that they’d be holding a family hostage in their own home or scrambling intercept jets on their own authority. It’s not the most egregious error I’ve ever seen, however, especially for a family film, so I’ll let it slide.
Finally, the effects really do hold up overall. The shape-shifting drone ship was done with CGI, and it actually still looks good today, an especially impressive feat given the rudimentary state of mid-80s computer graphics. This was only two years after The Last Starfighter, whose effects don’t really hold up at all to a modern eye. Also impressive were the menagerie of alien creatures being cared for by Max. They were all created practically as puppets, and range from disgustingly cute to just plain disgusting. About the only effect that didn’t still look great were the steps to interior of the ship. The door is supposed to melt, flow down and form into floating steps, but the rotoscope animation they used for the effect looks noticeably out of place with the rest of the quality effects (and way worse than I remember it looking).
I think that this movie has kind of been forgotten in the annals of great kids’ movies. It’s got a really wonderful central performance, imaginative effects, and a great sense of adventure. I could definitely see a modern remake of it being successful – the Jim Henson Company has been trying to get one going with the showrunner of Lucifer as writer. I’d like to see that.
-Honestly, this might be the longest I’ve gone without seeing a movie for this project that still held up on rewatch. I really enjoyed this one, y’all.
-Surprise actor #247 for this project: an extremely young Sarah Jessica Parker, fresh off her starring role in Square Pegs, as the NASA intern that befriends Davey and helps him escape with the ship.
–Star Trek Actor Watch: Davey’s dad is played by Cliff DeYoung, who was in a first-season episode of Deep Space Nine (“Vortex”, where he played a con-man alien with potential knowledge of Odo’s species). Since he was in so much makeup for the role, I didn’t recognize him at all, but the name sounded familiar in the credits and I looked him up.