A premise in search of a more resonant telling, but you can't deny that it's one hell of a premise for a kid's adventure flick to have in the first place—nor that it doesn't wind up grasping for something halfway-meaningful at the end.
Directed by Randal Kleiser
Written by Mark Baker, Michael Burton, and Matt MacManus
With Joey Cramer (David Freeman), Cliff De Young (Bill Freeman), Veronica Cartwright (Helen Freeman), Sarah Jessica Parker (Carolyn McAdams), Albie Whitaker/Matt Adler (Jeff Freeman, at 8 and 16 respectively), Howard Hessemen (Dr. Louis Faraday), and Paul Reubens (Max)
As Spielberg's Jaws was to the creature feature, so was Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to the kid's adventure, reinventing the subgenre to such enormous acclaim (and enormous profit) that the torrent of imitators to follow was as inevitable as the dawn. The best we've covered already, but the 1980s' bench of good-to-great kid's adventure flicks goes much deeper than you'd expect. Or maybe it goes exactly as deep as you'd expect, and I'm blinded by nostalgia. It's a fair argument to make. Nevertheless, even nostalgia has limits. We are still talking about a cavalcade of rip-offs here, and, of the whole post-E.T. movement, some of the absolute worst are the ones that opted to rip it off directly. (You no doubt know Mac and Me and Nukie, but how about The New Extraterrestrials? Oh, but you do—though you might know it better as that 3rd season MST3K experiment, The Pod People.)
Yet there are exceptions to every rule, and Flight of the Navigator is a good example of a movie that takes one more loser kid, pairs him off with one more magical, sometimes-wacky alien, and teaches them both the meaning of friendship and family. That's probably why the objectively-worst part of the whole affair is the part that takes its secondhand E.T.-ness and slaps you right in the face with it—that is, when Navigator's kid hero, David, stops to make a call, and a bystander, mesmerized by David's alien bud's awesome spaceship, mutters aloud, "He just said he wanted to phone home."
Dude, we get it.
Not everything else about it is perfect, clearly; but, thankfully, nothing else is that low, either.
Now, it certainly helps that Navigator's an honest-to-God real motion picture—a claim that can only be tenuously maintained on behalf of most of E.T.'s lineal descendants. The script may've been passed over by Disney in 1984, but it was picked up by Mark Damon's Producers Sales Organization (what an evocative name!), and—between PSO, Norway's Viking Films, and a regretful Disney itself—Navigator wound up surprisingly well-funded. This led not just to the deployment of some groundbreaking special effects (any chronicle of CGI that doesn't mention Navigator is direly incomplete), but to the employment of a legitimate director, too. Indeed, the one led to the other. You see, in 1985, Jeff Kleiser's visual effects firm was in the process of self-destructing, and, soon enough, he found himself looking for a new job. But Jeff, while no slouch (he'd worked on TRON), had one specific skill above all else to offer his new prospective employer, Omnibus Computer Animation: namely, his brother Randal was directing Disney's next would-be blockbuster, and they needed a lot of primal CGI in order to make their scenario sing. And the elder Kleiser, most famous for helming Grease (and most infamous for filming The Blue Lagoon—which is a kind of kid's adventure, I guess), was definitely going to get his DNA's worth out of the deal.
That's why history remembers Navigator, anyway. But it's not, I suspect, why its audience does. Rather, the most unforgettable thing about it is how punishingly dark it gets, before it (immediately, and somewhat misguidedly) lightens up. It rivals even E.T.'s death fake-out in this regard; if someone had decided to really wallow in the fate that befalls poor David, it'd probably easily surpass it.
So: on Independence Day, 1978, we find young Floridian David Freeman entering his 12th summer, and, like most of us at that age, just generally hating life—unable to train his dog to catch frisbees, unable to talk to girls, and (worst of all) unable to get away from his shitheaded younger brother, Jeff. (Oh, I get it! That's cute!) Tasked with retrieving his bro from a neighbor's house, David takes a detour through the woods. In the time-honored manner of shitheaded younger brothers everywhere, Jeff's lying in wait, hoping to startle David into peeing his pants. David maintains command of his urine, but he does run off a cliff and into a ravine, and—by the time he climbs out—Jeff is nowhere to be found. Sullenly making his way back home, David's in for even ruder shock: whoever the hell it is in his house, it's not his parents. And that's because, for everyone else on Earth, it's been eight whole years. Now, we already have a pretty good idea how this happened, from the cross-cut scenes of NASA's discovery of a downed spaceship...
(It helps if you possess a working understanding of time dilation, which I actually did when I was four. I didn't go outside much.)
...But David? He's freaking out. His parents, when he finally finds them, are on the wrong side of middle-aged, and clearly the worse for wear from his unexplained disappearance (there's an especially sober SVU episode hidden in the jump cut that takes us from 1978 to 1986). His brother Jeff is now post-pubescent (why, he's even mostly managed to grow into his incredibly goofy face, and while I'm sure child actor Albie Whitaker eventually did too, he was the most aggressively butt-ugly child you'll ever see in one of these things, representing unbelievably perfect kid-brother casting). More than anything, though, David is confronted with an annihilating mystery—but that's where the Evil Government comes more fully into the picture, having made the connection between that spaceship and the kid who hasn't aged a day in eight years.
NASA's Dr. Faraday offers the Freemans answers, if only they'll consent to letting David spend a couple of days at Evil Space Camp. It's an irresistible offer, even if it's rather obvious that once Faraday hooks David up to his electrodes, and starts getting starmaps of impossible constellations, he's surely going to keep this lad imprisoned in the name of Science. But once he's on-site, David can hear a voice leading him to the living vessel that took him before, a self-described "Trixamion Drone Ship," soon to be dubbed "Max." Confronted now with the possibility of either spending the rest of his unnatural life in a NASA cage, or of peeling out with an untrustworthy alien, our young hero reluctantly chooses to flee.
And, like most of these things, Navigator is effectively a two-act film. Indeed, in terms of narrative density, it's almost a one-act film: at the turn, it almost becomes a sci-fi-inflected hang-out flick, with the two leads pinging against one another; and that pinging gets extremely high-pitched, once Max reveals why he still needs David, which is to recover the starcharts he uploaded into the boy's head.
So, yeah, that's Act Two, but you'd be apt to call it a whole separate movie. It's two movies that hang together well enough, but also two movies that seem to have incredibly different goals and moods. That second movie is an avowed comedy—though its single best joke is still its first, when Max explains that the reason David even has those starcharts is because the aliens put them there (and I quote) "to see what would happen." And the biggest reason that joke is funny is because at this point, Max is still a deadpanning, slightly-snotty machine. Soon enough, however, Max gets ahold of David's "inferior brain"—and accidentally downloads David's human personality, too. In the space of one frighteningly iconic laugh, Navigator reverts to type.
Needless to say, it's not half as good as the Twilight Zone nightmare that came before. To his (dubious) credit, Kleiser does ease you end to it—with a bit of tonal connective tissue involving, in turn, a young Sarah Jessica Parker, a food-delivery NASA robot with more than enough room for a young boy to hide inside it, and the world's stupidest guards. But once dear old Paul Reubens unmistakably asserts himself as the voice of Max, Navigator gets really silly, really fast.
Now, it's relatively harmless: knowing that it's actually Reubens makes it much better than thinking it's someone merely doing a Ruebens impression—although, oddly enough, this is exactly what Navigator allows you to think, insofar as Reubens is credited under a pseudo-funny pseudonym, "Paul Mall." But it's also never less than crystal clear that Max and David are rather more engaging, and much less prone to hitting the doofy shrillness redline, when Max is a chirpy but very-by-the-book robot. (A robot, admittedly, who utters his catchphrase—"Compliance!"—far too often for it to stay funny, even when Max's overly-literal "compliance" with David's demands does lead to several various amusing complications.) On the other hand, given the limitations it obviously labors under, it's hard to imagine filling out Navigator's 90 minute runtime without going for full-out kid's komedy (even if only half of it works). I didn't compare it to the Zone by accident, and those were twenty-five minutes long for a reason.
Thus, the latter half of Navigator can only ever be intermittent in its charms—though when it's charming, it's exceedingly charming. Take that aforementioned early CGI: it's pretty damn good. Limited to rendering a shape-changing liquid metal spaceship, it's operating at just about the most barbaric level it possibly could—but, back in the primordial years of the technology, filmmakers didn't let their reach exceed their grasp nearly as easily as they do today. And so an effects-heavy movie like Navigator that limits itself to showing off some pretty good cloud-mirroring deserves the praise it gets—even if that praise necessarily seems a little backhanded, and even if it's clearly only a matter of time before somebody drops the word "quaint."
But, hey, as long as we're talking about quaint, there's the old-school puppetry that brings the rest of Max's menagerie to life, too—he's been a busy exobiologist, and David is not the only sample he's collected. Max's puppet pals are, in some respects, thoughtless kid's fantasy garbage; but even at their worst they're still enchanting pieces of real dreamstuff, and I could never hate them, just because I outgrew them.
They even permit the littlest bit of darkness seep back in: the creature that David bonds with, and which mirrors his own sad situation, is a wee newt-thing, whose own planet was destroyed by a comet before Max could bring him home.
It's the darkness that sells Navigator, then, and even as a child I knew it. It's hardly everything it could be—but probably only because it's so notionally horrifying that the screenwriters consciously elected not to push it as far as it would logically go. The most obvious gap here is their failure to provide David's family the slightest hint of disbelief or resistance when he comes back into their lives; but I can only assume that this was nixed at the earliest possible stage, to keep Navigator's intended audience from forcibly repatriating themselves into their mother's wombs.
As well they might've: it's only about ten minutes, but it's an upsetting ten minutes, even for an adult who already knows how it ends, and Kleiser emphasizes the utter helplessness of our kid-out-of-time. He can only take the domestic metaphor so far, of course. That's why Navigator rapidly moves on to one of the 80s' less-awful (and least-mustache-twirling) Evil Government Subplots instead. But even after Navigator hits its thematic wall, it still manages to at least feint in the direction of its worthier subject matter—namely, a child's terror of being unable to influence, or sometimes even comprehend, the events that control their life.
Meanwhile, for as long as that first act endures, Navigator keeps up one admirably deep sense of sci-fi mystery. Thank Kleiser for that favor, too: one may honestly enjoy the visual foreshadowing of frisbees (or that curiously ominous Goodyear blimp), that prefigure the real UFO to come; and there's one great, 80s-filmstock shot of the ship, seen on its way to Cape Kennedy through an obscuring summer haze; and, crucially, Kleiser doles out the screenplay's revelations (like David's ability to talk to computers in machine-code) in a way that tends to raise far more questions than the film is ever willing to immediately answer. All the while, Navigator's mood of uneasy discovery is underlined wonderfully by Alan Silvestri's enigmatic electronic score—though, of course, that's just one more element that doesn't make it through the transition from "allegorical pulp" to "secret Pee-Wee vehicle" entirely unscathed. (In fact, it might be the most-scathed, with its "adventure" themes tending to collapse into full-on synthesizer cheese. It must be Silvestri's single 80s-est score of all, short of Romancing the Stone itself.)
Altogether, though, that's just the price you pay for any kid's adventure: the build-up is invariably more satisfying than the pay-off. But Navigator, for all the eye-rolling frivolity it gets up to, never completely escapes its own gravity. The nonsense is at least tolerable, even when it's not funny. And while the ending is inevitable—David was never brought back to his proper place in time, because humans are insufficiently robust to survive the trip through the temporal barrier, so just guess how Navigator concludes—it's also quite impressively earned, in a way that even the better kid's adventure movies don't typically reach. It's surely a movie about childish wish-fulfillment, but it owns up to its intentions in the most appealingly guileless way any movie could: because, after all, who among us didn't want an alien friend to come down from the sky, and take us back to a time when happiness still seemed like a possibility?