Flight of the Navigator: The Most Underrated Movies of the 1980s

SO FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR…

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Part of this whole weird and stupid Laser Time journey is seeing how our beautiful nostalgia holds up to a cold and brutal reality. I’ve done the work, people! Revisiting many of the biggest things I loved as a kid under 10-years-old in the 1980s – He-Man, GI Joe, Transformers, An American Tale, Care Bears movies – reveals a period where original ideas could thrive… but the bar was very low. I wouldn’t recommend folks who grew up with that stuff rewatch any of it again, let alone subject any new or future human child to them. A lot of that stuff doesn’t hold up, and to be fair, it wasn’t meant to. Most movies don’t need to maintain their quality for more than a decade. But Flight of the Navigator has, and that it did so at a wonderfully weird time for film in general, and at such a bizarre time for the company that made it, makes it all the more fascinating.

Like the wonderful sci-fi boom in comics and short stories of the 1950s, Flight of the Navigator’s plot is so deceptively simple, and is such a wonderfully self-contained tale that it feels like it could’ve come from the pen of of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King at their most playful. A kid blacks out and wakes up eight years in the future. That’s it. It’s not a long enough time for anything world-altering to have happened, there’s no villain to combat, and there’s no time stream to reassemble. It’s a time travel film that simultaneously adheres to an understated logic in order be believable, such as light speed travel, yet doesn’t dwell on the device long enough to get anything truly wrong. Other than heading to the past, I’ve heard folks who really love time travel theory state that Flight of the Navigator is one of the best movies on the subject. I’ll leave it up to smarter folks to argue that point. Those are questions I don’t need answered.

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The biggest reason I think Flight of the Navigator still works for people both young and old, is because it’s sort of two distinct films, or at least comprised of two very different tones. This is important, and it’s sorta why I gave you all that context above, but as a discerning adult film lover it’s charm is being somewhat disjointed. Unlike a lot of Disney and/or “kids films” it doesn’t appear to suffer from a “too many cooks” problem. If anything, it feels a little rushed, perhaps fasttracked to take advantage of the sci-fi craze, and as such, switches gears midway through, from Hard Sci-fi to Fantasy Kids Movie, in a way I can fully admit is jarring. I’ve heard this levied as a criticism of the film, but I think that’s precisely why people who saw it remember it so well. Disney is a studio of precise, predictable formulas, yet Flight of the Navigator enacted a first-class maneuver and somehow evaded Hollywood suits in 1986.

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Let’s crack this kid open!

Good or bad, a fundamental quality among many 80s “family” movies was a willingness to scare the shit out of children. If you look at hits like The Goonies, Poltergeist, or E.T., or cult classics like Neverending Story, Dark Crystal, and Secret of Nimh, filmmakers seemed to delight in situations that brought their young audiences to a traumatic pants-pissing precipice, and I’d argue that’s what made and keeps them memorable. I can’t speak for people ages 12-25, but the first half of Flight of the Navigator terrified me as a kid, and as I come ever closer to parenthood and grow more empathetic to children, it terrifies me even more.

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Rather than push David towards restoring any historical event or defeating an all-encompassing evil, it instead dwells on the horrible reality of a child becoming unstuck in time against his will. David is a victim of a 1-in-a-gazillion situation. I’ve never been a fan of The One (or The Keanu Reeves) plot device. The reluctant hero prophesied to vanquish the bad guy. As an adult, having a main character with some ancient Macguffin inside him or her feels like a cheap appeal to the inner narcissist of the ostracized, and I almost always prefer my stories star schlubby Every Mans who are forced to reach beyond themselves and do the impossible with no innate skill. Perhaps that comes from growing up as an unremarkable boy with no discernable talents, and this is a result of a lifetime of low self esteem. But hey, that probably puts me in the majority!

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So when it came to envisioning fantastical situations I desperately wanted to happen to me, I never felt like the star karate champ or The Boy Who Lived. I felt more like the kid who had to trip and fall into the vat of toxic waste to get super powers, or accidentally be visited by aliens. And that’s what happens to David. He is picked at random to be the first human studied by Max, an alien/ship from Phaelon. David spends some time sedated in light speed, and is tossed back to Earth in the same way you would “rescue“ a lizard from inside your house by throwing it out the back door in freezing weather. That the return is eight years later and extremely inconvenient for David is unimportant to Max, because c’mon, the beings on his ship alone suggest a much larger universe. David seems insignificant because he is insignificant. A profound lesson for the kiddies watching, for sure, but they should probably learn it eventually.

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David heads home to find his parents no longer live there, and when he does find them, they’re visibly disheveled, seemingly impoverished after spending nearly a decade looking for him, and in one of the sweetest scenes in the film, his annoying younger brother is now older than he is. The police are baffled why he looks exactly the same as when he went missing (including the same clothes). Meanwhile David starts hearing weird shit, NASA gets starts studying the bizarre patterns and coordinates in his head and they eventually confine him against his will for his benefit.

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One of the most refreshing about Pixar’s Inside Out is that there is no real villain. Same goes for Flight of the Navigator. The drama derives from a situation or accident, not a person or a malevolent force. It’s simply coping with an abrupt life change. But with that said I love, love, LOVE that the only thing approximating villain is fucking NASA. Even though I know now that they pose no threat to David now, as a kid watching every televised Space Shuttle launch, I remember it being really odd that the only government organization I was even aware of were the “bad guys” in a movie I loved. So conflicted! Of course, this makes a lot more sense through adult eyes, although it doesn’t lessen the tension, and it’s certainly similar to the “antagonists” in ET, albeit unspooled far less elegantly.

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But it can’t be denied that situation is terrifying through the eyes of a child, and it still is. I can’t think of another kids movie where the hero spends this much time frightened and crying throughout the first act. As a kid, I remember the first half of Flight of the Navigator as the scary sour I had to endure to get to the soaringly sweet, but if I’m being honest, I prefer the first half now. David’s face when he’s told by the equally baffled scientists that the printer vomiting star charts and alien symbols gives me the same chills it did then, and even though what follows might not be as timeless, it brings me right back to the thrill of first watching it as a kid

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As all this is happening, the ship that abducted David is found by NASA having crashed into a power station and gone dark. Speaking as someone who’s still recovering from a failed hard drive, do you know that awesome feeling you get when you find that, in spite of yourself, you’ve backed up important files somewhere? Turns out the data used to test David’s human brain capacity is still there and can be recovered. It is quite literally the halfway point of the film 45 minutes in that David meets the alien Trimaxiom craft, or “Max” (and interacts with the ship’s cybernetic eye/arm and monotoned voice), that the movie becomes what most 80s kids remember.

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Max recovers the star charts from David’s head, but a little of David leaks in and the ship quite literally becomes Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens credited as “Paul Mall” for reasons I’m still not clear on.) From here it becomes the most straightforward “Kid Teaches Alien Thing to be Human” movie ever, and all of the suppressed humor from the first and second act bubbles up to become the typical kids film most would probably expect. Look: I am aware this could be grating for an uninitiated adult. It is literally a pitched version of Pee-Wee Herman (right down to his catchphrases and signature laugh) cracking wise for the remainder of its run time, but I would argue the movie keeps a thrilling tempo as it’s essentially a skybound road trip movie from there on out. Either way, without the tonal alteration, we wouldn’t have this sequence, which I will happily put in my top 5 movie scenes of the entire 1980s. ET’s got a lovely John Williams theme, but Flight of the Navigator has THE MOTHERFUCKING BEACH BOYS!!!

What I might be nostalgic over are the visuals, although not the ones you might be thinking of. Having lived the last ten years outside the state I was born and raised in, the Florida setting stands in stark contrast to the endless stretch of “Californiay” settings featured in damn near every other 80s film. Not so much the Miami setting, but the overgrown suburbs and brown marshlands Max careens over while flying David from Cape Canaveral (and the rest of the Earth) to his parents in Fort Lauderdale. It doesn’t matter how much you hate Florida, it’s a topographically unique area of the country, the world you almost never see it depicted in movies. I’d traveled these roads many times as a lad, but I hadn’t seen them from the air at 1000mph. Regardless of my personal memories, I could easily argue that they remain remarkably distinct as far as film locations go. I can’t think of any film that uses Central Florida as its primary location that doesn’t star Burt Reynolds. Or Jim Varney!

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But the sable palms of The Sunshine State aren’t the visuals you came to read about. I know! It’s Max, the glistening, chromatic, shape-shifting Trimaxiom spacecraft! The effect is hardly mystifying by today’s standards, but unlike a lot of CG used in even the last 15 years it doesn’t stick out like technologically sore thumb either. Obviously, you could make the argument that the ship operates on the “less is more” Jaws principle, but I actually want to modify that to the Jurassic Park philosophy, where the only time you resort to CG is when you can’t do it with practical effects. Exteriors of Max moving at high speeds are about the only time anything is being “rendered” (and even then, you see it more than Bruce the Shark.) The rest of the time the ship is an interior stage or a giant lifesize prop just a’danglin’! Inside he’s a puppet, outside he’s CGI. Visually, all of it holds up as authentic, and I mean, what kid isn’t fascinated by a goddamn spaceship?!

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I don’t want to overlook the fact that Flight of the Navigator has some pretty stellar/occasionally terrifying puppetry on display (shout out to the Puckmaren!), but more important to the film’s legacy are the pioneering digital effects work. On a very broad technicality it has one of the world’s first CGI characters, (Max IS the ship!) but you can’t deny the painstaking efforts made to give Max is look in the film’s exteriors. The product of multiple years and FX companies, the trailblazing technology had less to do with Max’s polygon count, and a helluva lot more to do with his reflective surface. Yes, that’s a Snapchat filter for us today, but back then it was a painstaking process that needed to be built from scratch so that the digital artists could scan the film’s environment and then remap it to Max’s contour frame by frame. This involved multiple days worth of rendering by supercomputers of the era just to see if you got it wrong. But I think the effect holds up to this day due to the dedication of getting it to look as convincing as possible with technology your kids wouldn’t piss on. You can read more about the process here.

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Nothing against the masterpiece that is Terminator 2, but that movie’s T-1000, which came five years later, continues to get full credit decades later for the very process Flight of the Navigator pioneered. Again, I’m not bitter! But the internet is built upon a solid foundation of listicles proclaiming “The Greatest 80s Movies” or “The Best Sci-fi Movies/Kids Films/Disney Movies/Sarah Jessica Parker Roles” and I almost never see Flight of the Navigator get the nod it deserves.

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Now, I’m hardly desperate for a follow-up to the film, but I find it insane that Disney managed to get a new That Darn Cat, another much-loathed Herbie movie, and a Witch Mountain remake into theaters, while a Flight of the Navigator remake has languished in Development Hell since it was first announced in 2009. Furthermore, Disney still has rides around the world devoted to movies featuring Tar Babies, children smoking, and, uh, Toads going to hell for not wearing seat belts, but Flight of the Navigator’s real-life ship sits today nearly dilapidated in Disney World, a beacon of bird shit and sun damage.


Our hero, ladies and gentlemen

I get it. It’s an old movie. But few other companies other than Disney have so many avenues of celebrating its films as well as showcasing them for new generations. Had Flight of the Navigator come out of any other studio, I genuinely believe we’d be balls deep in Max toys and special edition anniversary DVDs at this point. As a minor update/addendum to what I wrote above, the Blu-ray I have is an import from Europe. It was apparently released by Tri-Star Entertainment, and the packaging contains no mention of the company who made it. What the hell, Disney?!

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Flight of the Navigator was, is, and likely will remain an enduring little family-friendly sci-fi comedy for those who seek it out. And I encourage to find a Blu-ray copy wherever you can, while you still can. And for those of you who care, we did an a full-length commentary for the film you can find on our Bandcamp page, or free as part of our Patreon.

For more Disney dorkinessbe sure to check out our 15 Aladdin Facts You Never Knew and our 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Roger Rabbit article. 

8 thoughts on “Flight of the Navigator: The Most Underrated Movies of the 1980s

  1. Love reading and hearing you or any of the other hosts talking about things you love as much as this Chris, very good read!

  2. Awesome stuff. I watched this movie many times in the 80s. I haven’t seen it in 25 years or whatever. The first GIF reminds me of The Host. Very cool.

  3. Fantastic stuff as always, Chris!
    Like most movies I watched as a kid, I somehow blocked out the insanely terrifying and psychologically scarring moments and only remembered the “cool stuff”. It was only after rewatching movies like Flight of the Navigator, Pinocchio and Dumbo years later that I realized how emotionally intense they really are!!
    Thanks for writing this!

  4. Fantastic job Chris. What a comprehensive write up! Seeing Condorman in any article always gives me a chuckle. It was one of those weird movies from my childhood that I’m almost convinced didn’t happen.

  5. “It was apparently released by Tri-Star Entertainment, and the packaging contains no mention of the company who made it. What the hell, Disney?!”Just want to state the film was made by independent company PSO, the UK blu-ray also wasn’t released by Disney, it was released by Second Sight. All this info is on the blu-ray packaging.

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