Retro Cinema: Flight of the Navigator

Andrew reviews the '80s Disney live action classic, Flight of the Navigator.

With the news of now 42 year old former child star Joey Cramer's arrest over an armed bank robbery fresh in national headlines, it brought up bittersweet memories of the child actor's still splendid turn as David Freeman in Grease director-for-hire Randal Kleiser's 1986 Disney sci-fi flick Flight of the Navigator.  

Dude. This is so much better than 8 bit gaming. 

One of my childhood favorites growing up through the advent of VHS tape, the film concerns a 12 year old boy in 1978 Fort Lauderdale, Florida who takes a fall in a ditch only to reawaken in 1986 with no recollection of his whereabouts during his lost time.  After a NASA investigation in connection with a crashed alien spacecraft, David learns the answer to his missing eight years may lie within the metallic silver walls of the spaceship.  Featuring an early performance by then newcomer Sarah Jessica Parker, veteran actors Cliff DeYoung and Veronica Cartwright as David's parents and the voice talents of Pee-Wee Herman star Paul Reubens as the extraterrestrial commander of the alien spacecraft, Flight of the Navigator is a fun chunk of 80s family sci-fi nostalgia with a still fabulous Synclavier digital score by Back to the Future's Alan Silvestri and dated yet early CGI rendering of the "Trimaxion Drone Ship" David finds himself navigating.  At once a family science fiction entertainment and a pioneer of visual effects and production design, the question becomes how well has this theatrical bomb turned home video hit aged in the years since its release.  

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Unlike science fiction films before it, Flight of the Navigator without knowledge of the year of inception is unmistakably a product of the mid-1980s.  From the synthetic score, off color references to the mentally handicapped and the extraterrestrial commander's 180 degree turn from HAL-9000 to full blown Pee-Wee Herman pin the Disney venture to being a work of the era when it was made.  Where the archaic Commodore 64 looking computers adorning the Nostromo in Alien still suggest a timeframe in the possible future, the old school oversized desktops with black-and-white tube monitors keep Flight of the Navigator from achieving timelessness.  It's also a bit heavier than most family movies with scenes of a terrified David finding his old home with new residents in it before happening upon his aged parents now sporting gray hairs.  Most startling of all are scenes where NASA tries an EKG test on the boy and a library of extraterrestrial star charts are unlocked from his head despite having no knowledge of their existence.  As a kid I found it intriguing as Hell but others might get scared by some of the ideas at play here.  Seeing Sarah Jessica Parker so young for those who only know her from Sex and the City are in for a bit of a shock, especially with that unforgiving 80s hair.  The CGI is a bit dated but seeing it so early in an era where filmmakers were just starting to get their feet wet using it is still an important highlight in the technology's history, not to mention only years earlier Disney employed groundbreaking CGI work in Tron.

Flight of the Navigator might be a dated and potentially forgettable sci-fi/Pee-Wee Herman goof but despite not aiming very high I still have uninhibited nostalgic fun rewatching this as the years go on.  Introducing it to my nieces and nephews was especially fun as for them (and myself), it came out of nowhere and hooks you almost immediately.  Yes some of the tropes and motifs of the '80s setting and sensibilities of the Disney machine make it difficult to take entirely seriously, but as a time traveling science-fiction venture for kids it's still a solid entertainment with a family friendly charm to it.  If nothing else, Paul Reubens fans are in for a treat when the extraterrestrial turns his spaceship into Pee-Wee's Playhouse.  As a fan of electronic music and the new 80s retro movement pioneered by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn, Alan Silvestri's score is debatably even more fun to listen to now than when it first came out.  

Sadly I won't be able to look at actor Joey Cramer the same way again after seeing a pickled forty-something mugshot from his recent arrest and rewatching Flight of the Navigator now takes on something of a bittersweet knowledge of how yet another once promising child actor fell off the rails as an adult.  Still, if you're looking for some old fashioned '80s era Disney family fun with a science fiction backdrop and early user of CGI effects work, Flight of the Navigator will give you a swell time at the movies and your kids something genuinely exciting and charming to watch.


- Andrew Kotwicki