When you think about it, Flight of the Navigator was the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial of its generation – a family-friendly, sci-fi adventure appealing to our reflective, childhood innocence, ‘bad guys in suits’ scares, good, old-fashioned fun with an alien, and an immediate desire to return home. Although, it didn’t enjoy the same success as the Spielberg classic (or had an unsuccessful video game to bury in a landfill), but like a lot of sci-fi films that came out of the 80s (e.g. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Steven Lisberger’s Tron or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), it rose out of the box office flames like a phoenix, and found a new lease of life.
For a bombastically driven 90 minute feature that remains one of my childhood favourites, it’s hard not to see why when it ticks so many boxes. It may look outdated in comparison to modern feature films, but it’s an appreciative, throwback mix of computer-generated and practical effects, valuing the balance between its technological limitations and the imagination of its craft. Joey Cramer’s performance encapsulates that staple 80s wonder of an ordinary life thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Paul Reubens can try to ‘pull the wool over our eyes’ by listing himself as ‘Paul Mall’ in the credits, but as soon as you hear that infamous Pee-Wee laugh, the connection is undeniable. Veronica Cartwright (Alien) is science fiction royalty as far as I’m concerned, and her role in Flight of the Navigator validates that statement. But who can forget Alan Silvestri’s upbeat score, which is musical gold to the ears? When you add up all the evidence, Flight of the Navigator remains one of the most underrated pinnacles of the sci-fi genre, a euphoric mix of pop culture nostalgia and feel-good entertainment.
It’s a sentiment that shows from its foreshadowed opening; ominous ‘flying saucers’ flying in the sky only to be pulled out of the otherworldly distraction into an earthly activity of dogs catching frisbees. It’s a sharp message by director Randal Kleiser, pulling our attention away from the skies into a juxtaposed reality of family life and sibling rivalry. And before we can get used to the idea of normality, everything changes when David (Joey Cramer) is knocked unconscious in the woods, only to wake up that’s it’s not 1978. It’s 1986, and he’s been missing for eight years.
It’s impressive to this day that Flight of the Navigator manages to cram so much into its fast-paced story. Despite being a light-hearted affair, it’s a dark subject matter that never loses sight of the identifiable themes that resonate with so many of us. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if the situation was reversed, but through Cramer’s excellent performance, he captures the emotional vulnerability of a robbed childhood and the desperate attempt to understand what happened to him. You feel that terrifying pain when he returns home to find strangers living in his home. You feel that isolated disconnection when he finally sees his family, aged during his disappearance, especially his younger brother who is now his ‘older’ brother. You feel it when NASA start to treat him as a research study, separating him away from his family instead of a young kid who emotionally wants everything to go back to normal. While Flight of the Navigator briskly transitions from each scenario, the film’s core strength is maintaining that family narrative throughout.
Even when it decides to explain the phenomenon, it never resorts to ‘talking down’ to its audience, brazenly explaining light speed theory with reassurance, even if you’re not familiar with the term. No matter how many times you’ve watched it, it’s the little details that keep Flight of the Navigator’s feet on the ground. It may indulge in its otherworldly signatures, but it adopts a tightly-woven, digestible story that everyone can universally get on board and follow through to the end.
But where the film starts to deliver its payoff is David’s interaction with the alien ship and its crane-like computer Max (voiced by Paul Reubens). After discovering that he was abducted and Max’s navigational charts are stored inside David’s head, it swiftly moves up the gear to become a mission to get home. Paul Reubens is in his element, rapidly bouncing off David’s humanity versus his inhuman nature. But earning every ounce of screentime, it lovingly adopts its developing bond as a humorous partnership, not quite on the levels of Laurel and Hardy, but as surrogate siblings on an incredible journey.
It’s hard to find faults when tonally everything is on point, and as silly as it sounds, but with the combination of Silvestri’s score, David flying the alien craft and the sweeping aerial shots of the world, that signature 80s optimism that results in a spirited smile on your face is an emotion that is extremely difficult to dissipate.
Besides the stunning 4k scan, beautifully restored for this special release, the extras are worth the purchase. The disc includes a healthy amount of features including brand new interviews from the cast and crew and behind the scenes production footage. Probably the best factoid information that is revealed is that Brian De Palma wanted to direct the film. One can only imagine how different Flight of the Navigator would have been under his direction, but this is one of those rare occasions where you’re thankful that Randal Kleiser took the helm.
As a worthy addition to your blu-ray collection, it deserves the celebration and recognition. Not justified solely by my personal, geeky love of the film but by the measure of what it represents. Like the treasured favourites of yesteryear such as The Goonies and Back to the Future, it has endured for so long because it’s a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and thanks to the loving attention from the new print, this memorable classic has never looked this good.
Dir: Randal Kleiser
Scr: Mark H. Baker, Michael Burton, Matt MacManus
Cast: Joey Cramer, Paul Reubens, Cliff De Young, Veronica Cartwright, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Adler and Howard Hesseman.
Prd: Dimitri Villard, Robert Wald, David Joseph
DOP: James Glennon
Music: Alan Silvestri
Runtime: 90 mins
Flight of the Navigator Limited Edition blu-ray is released on 26th August