There was a time in my life when Flight of the Navigator was my absolute favorite movie. It was, in so many ways, the perfect movie for a boy growing up in the late ’80s: It featured a twelve-year-old hero caught up in government shenanigans, dogs catching frisbees, strange alien creatures, time travel, and a shapeshifting spaceship from the planet Phaelon. What more could a boy ask for?
Shortly after we got married, I convinced my wife that we should rent Flight of the Navigator one night… and it held up rather well. It wasn’t without its flaws — Paul Reubens as the voice of Max, the spaceship’s robotic pilot, was annoying in a way that my 6th grade self never noticed — but it was still an enjoyable movie, and not simply because of the nostalgia factor. (On a sidenote, I wouldn’t count this as a flaw per se, but I was surprised at the amount of language that a PG-rated “family” film could apparently get away with in 1986.)
But the nostalgia factor almost certainly explains why I was searching on Flight of the Navigator — as you do in this age of Google — which led me to the following items.
First is probably the most thoughtful, critical analysis of the movie you’re ever likely to read, courtesy of Not Coming to a Theater Near You:
Released amid a flood of similarly kid-oriented sci-fi films (like SpaceCamp and Solarbabies, and even the unabashedly family-friendly Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), Disney’s Flight of the Navigator was no great box-office success upon its initial release in 1986. It wasn’t until its subsequent revival on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney that the film achieved any notice at all, but in more recent years, it seems to have calcified into something of a children’s classic, at least in the memories of those who were children in the 1980s. And in some ways, the resurgent reputation of Flight of the Navigator — a film about a boy lost in time for eight years, returning to a world he doesn’t quite belong in, but one that remembers him fondly — is actually rather fitting.
Fitting, perhaps — but also a little creepy. Nostalgia is a faulty sort of time machine, and hindsight about once-treasured children’s entertainment is rarely 20/20. To say that Flight of the Navigator is a film best relegated to the Memory Hole is perhaps a little unfair — it is, after all, not without its moments. But returning to the film after twenty-four years later, one may find Flight of the Navigator’s wishful, sentimental narrative of return really only proves that one cannot go home again.
Though we can be fairly sure that this film will not depart from the usual patterns of a Disney film by probing the issue of child-abduction too deeply, this dark, melancholy first section is still indelibly disturbing, suggesting both the concrete horrors of children’s faces on milk-cartons and tragic news stories about broken families, as well as the more abstract terrors of lost family and lost childhood, of time slipping away. The film begins to feel sort of like A.I. avant la lettre, but as it’s also a product manufactured for family entertainment, it obviously doesn’t dwell on this point for long. Soon, it’s briskly moving on to brighter territory, with intercut sequences of NASA’s Dr. Faraday (played by Head of the Class’s Howard Hesseman) finding a floating UFO — sleek, chrome, shaped like a brain, and totally impermeable — that will set up the magical and narratively uplifting “flight” promised by the title.
Of course, being a movie that features time travel rather prominently, Flight of the Navigator is practically begging for some in-depth scientific analysis. Enter Temporal Anomalies in Time Travel Movies and its exhaustive analysis of the movie’s approach to science and time travel:
For a long time, I found the movie disconcerting, even irrational. However, years later I have had the opportunity to take a fresh look with a new eye, viewing it through the lens of a new approach to temporal anomaly theory. With this new conception of time, the film becomes a possible, perhaps even a well considered, presentation of events in a time stream. Of course, as is commonly the case in time travel stories, there are pieces missing, bits that will have to be illuminated, in order to see the entire picture.
We note that when Davey came home in the A‑B timeline, this was no longer his home. Someone else lived there. His parents had moved to another house in Fort Lauderdale. I am forced to ask why this happened. Why do people move? Since they did not leave the area, we would conclude that it was not a relocation based on business. People don’t move across town because they’ve been transferred, unless they work in the building in which they live (such as a building superintendent who lives in an apartment where the tenants can find him). People move across town because they need more space, or they cannot use the space they have, or they can no longer afford the property, or the neighborhood is going bad — or reasons along those lines. Since the Freemans lost one son, and still hoped he would one day return, they did not need more room, and would not give up room (Jeff said Mom never changed David’s bedroom). The couple in the house when he returned seemed like good and well-to-do people, so it is not likely that the Freemans saw their property values collapsing or needed to move somewhere safer. I see only three reasons why they might have left. They might have moved because their financial situation worsened for reasons which have nothing to do with the loss of their son. They might have left because the stresses of losing a son created other problems which led to an inability to afford the house — they might have spent too much money trying to find him, or lost work or failed to gain promotions or raises because they lost focus through worry for their child. They might have left because the house reminded them of him constantly, and caused them too much grief. I personally am betting on the second reason. As long as they hoped David might return, they would try to stay in the house whatever pain it caused; and although the house to which they moved is not the beautiful waterfront property from which they moved, neither is it such a great fall from what they had that they might not have stayed there had they not been distracted. Thus, in the C‑D timeline, Davey 1 (the temporal duplicate) lives with his parents, brother, and dog in the house by the marina. Perhaps he even goes out with Jennifer, despite Jeff’s teasing. Also, they set off the fireworks that night, celebrating Independence Day.
For eight years, Davey’s life will seem very normal to everyone. He might mention his adventure to those closest to him — a best buddy, a girlfriend — especially since his possession of the alien creature will stand as proof (and reminder). Then, one day when Davey 1 is twenty years old, an event occurs which will shake his world: Davey 2 will come home.
Not surprisingly, given how everything gets remade these days, Disney announced that they were remaking the film back in 2009. Normally, I’m not for beloved portions of my childhood getting the remake treatment, but in this case I don’t mind so much. Yes, I have a nostalgic attachment to the original, so I certainly want the remake — if it ever happens — to do right by it. However, having seen the original with some fresh eyes and becoming well aware of its flaws, I wouldn’t mind seeing a fresh, original, thoughtful take on the story, with “fresh,” “original,” and “thoughtful” being the operative words in that sentence.
And finally, below is the trailer for the original film — though, at the risk of sounding nitpicky, I don’t think that’s Paul Reubens as the voice of Max. Also, they really cut movie trailers differently back then, didn’t they?