Film reviews

Flight Of The Navigator (1986) – Blu-ray Review

For children growing up in the 1980s, it feels like you had to see certain films as a rite of passage. Movies such as The Dark Crystal, The Goonies, and Flight Of The Navigator, to name just three which I’d somehow managed to miss at the time. If these flicks marked your transition into adolescence, then I guess that it means I technically never grew up, which would certainly explain a great deal.

In fact, that record still stood (proudly?) until just now, when I had the chance to watch Flight Of The Navigator for the very first time, due to a limited edition Blu-ray being released by Second Sight. It’s an interesting experience, watching a movie as a ‘grown’ (I intentionally use the word under caution) 43 year old, who has no emotional or childhood connection to what’s essentially a kids’ feature, coming to see it for the very first time with ‘adult’ (again, used under caution) eyes.

(I did think about asking 10 year old me to review it instead, but I checked, and he’s unfortunately far too busy watching lots of Doctor Who recordings on Betamax, as well as being deeply unpopular at school, chiefly for watching lots of Doctor Who recordings on Betamax. So that’s that.)

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For the two or three of you who, like me (until now, anyway), are unfamiliar with the plot, it revolves around 12 year old David Freeman (Joey Cramer), a Florida boy who ends up getting knocked out cold while playing in 1978. When he comes to, he finds out that it’s now 1986, and ends up coming to the attention of NASA, who believe he may have been abducted by an alien species; they’ve also found a crashed UFO, which seems to be connected. David escapes in the spaceship, and he finds out what actually happened to him.

Viewing a film when you’re somewhere around three decades over the intended age of its target audience, especially as this particular one is fondly regarded, is a bit of a poisoned chalice, for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that you end up being acutely aware of what really are some gaping holes in the basic story, and how much of a stretch it is to make the concept work. As a kid, you can most likely gloss over this to a certain extent, but it does get much harder when you’re older.

The main one seems to be the notion that the unseen aliens behind the abduction of David found out humans only use 10% of their brain capacity, so as an experiment, they decided to fill his brain up with star charts, in order to see what happened. As the spaceship’s crash caused it to lose all of its navigational data, it needs access to exactly the information which is stored in David’s brain. Oh, come on. That’s far too lame a plot device: having just the right information downloaded into David. The reason for the crash is also unconvincing and contrived in the extreme.

But that’s the curse of those adult eyes, I suppose. And, to be fair, minor quibbles aside, Flight Of The Navigator is actually a perfectly serviceable and actually quite enjoyable film for an adult audience; you certainly get a different perspective on the story, as it’s quite a touching coming-of-age piece, and shows the reconciliation between David and his younger brother, after getting to know him properly when he’s older than David (who’s still just 12) in 1986, having previously had a rather fractious relationship, fraught with usual sibling rivalry when David was back in 1978. It means that the movie works on more than one level, which is definitely a bonus.

The relative success or failure of Flight Of The Navigator hangs very much upon the lead character, and Joey Cramer manages to be endearing as David without falling into being mawkish or embarrassing. The thing with child actors is that they can sometimes be rather wooden, but Cramer does a great job in avoiding this potential pitfall, and helps to carry things along nicely. When David gets upset about being eight years adrift from the life that he knew, you can actually feel for him, and he comes across as being very believable and three dimensional in these moments particularly.

With this effectively also being a ‘buddy movie’, the other half of that equation is Max, the artificial intelligence that forms the Trimaxion Drone Ship. However, this proves to be one of the less successful bits of the film, thanks to the rather variable performance by ‘Paul Mall’, better known as Paul Reubens, A.K.A. Pee Wee Herman. To begin with, Max is likeable enough, but when he accesses David’s brainwaves in order to get the star charts he needs to get home that’s the point where he becomes unrelentingly childish and annoying, to such a grating extent that it really makes you want to claw your own ears off. (Maybe kids like that sort of thing, but I could see Reubens’ OTT performance as post-upload Max getting right on 10 year old me’s nerves.)

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One thing that’s aged significantly better is the design of the Drone Ship, with the interior and exterior both managing to still look very convincing to a modern audience. It’s remarkable to see that the pioneering CGI work undertaken here to create the reflective surface of the craft has stood up well, and bridges that gap between the basic imagery of Tron and the groundbreaking visuals seen just six years later than this film in Terminator 2. It certainly feels far less dated than, say, Sarah Jessica Parker’s ‘ultimate ’80s’ look given to her supporting character here; it definitely makes you understand why she doesn’t really talk about this movie. Still less embarrassing than Sex And The City 2, I’d have thought.

The movie looks great, thanks to its 4K scan and restoration, and the extras on this release are nicely put together, with a number of brand new interviews having been recorded with several members of the cast and crew, including Joey Cramer, Veronica Cartwright, and director Randal Kleiser; the film’s commentary track with Kleiser and producer Jonathan Sanger is also an interesting and informative listen. If there’s one thing the disc really needs, it’s a proper ‘making of’, something that Lisa Downs (maker of Life After Flash) will hopefully rectify in her forthcoming documentary Life After The Navigator, which should help to do for this movie what her previous feature did for Flash Gordon.

As movies go, it’s perhaps not as out of this world as the makers would’ve liked, but this limited edition release of Flight Of The Navigator is well worth making space for on any collector’s shelf.

Flight of the Navigator is released on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 26th August, from Second Sight Films.

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