Welcome back to the SciFi Squad Movie Club, where I get to find out if any readers met my request of revisiting some simple, kid-friendly Sci-Fi with compliance. As you may remember, the assignment on Friday was to watch 1986's Flight of the Navigator. I hadn't seen this film in many years, and when I wrote last week's post I tried to do as little research as possible. Though I was surprised by how much of the film I remembered, I'd forgotten a lot of details over time.
For starters, I forgot all the adults in the movie! David's mom is the great Sci-Fi actress Veronica Cartwright (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), his dad's Cliff DeYoung (Shock Treatment) and Howard Hesseman (Rubin and Ed) plays the NASA nemesis Dr. Faraday (I think I just heard a sound of recognition as all the "LOST" fans realized that Michael Faraday has been referenced before) . All of them give solid performances and don't seem like they're doing some lowly kid film.
In fact, my memory of the film only focused on David as the Navigator riding along with MAX, but David doesn't board the ship until halfway through the film! The mind transfer that allows MAX to reclaim the star charts from David's head (and turns him into a Pee-Wee Herman-sounding goof) comes right before the third act. Up until that point, the film plays like a mystery (Where are David's parents? Why is he so young? Where has he been?), then more science-fiction elements are added (Oh no, NASA locks David up! What's the deal with that mysterious ship?) until David sneaks out of his room and onto the Trimaxian Drone Ship. Only then does the film introduce some broad comedy and adventure elements before the moderately suspenseful ending.
Follow me after the jump and I'll share some more thoughts.
Does the film hold up?
If you watched this film today with kids, I guarantee they'd be entertained. Some of the references might need to be explained, but they'll definitely go along with the emotional rollercoaster that is Flight of the Navigator. While the film's not flawless, it rarely stumbles. The inexplicable opening title sequence of dogs catching Frisbees (which makes as much sense as the opening credits to Beware! The Blob) had me thinking I'd made a huge mistake in revisiting this film, but the feeling quickly subsided. None of the exposition of David and his family is painful or obvious, and while three lame fake-outs (there are three would-be UFO sightings before they're revealed to be a Frisbee, a blimp and a water tower) might be less than charming, the film doesn't falter again until MAX starts acting goofy. The third act is loose and doesn't make much sense. MAX needs David because he's lost all of his star charts and needs the ones he put into David's head to complete his mission and get back to Phaelon. Once MAX scans David, he gets a lot of David's personality but also gets the star charts. There's a BS explanation that MAX only knows the Earth's geography that David knows, which is why they fly around the world for 20 minutes, but when you think about it, David should have been scanned and quickly ejected from the ship, leaving MAX free to blast off and return the other specimens. I'm going to chalk it up to MAX's newly-obtained human emotions and a need to hang out with this friend he just mind melded with as an explanation for MAX needing a navigator. After that, some misused scientific lingo and some blatant mentions of McDonald's & Coca-Cola (thankfully nowhere near MAC and Me levels) are the worst of the Flight of the Navigator's offenses.
But the plotting of the first hour of the film is really tight, and it plays David's decisions to risk his life and go back in time as a real (albeit mild) surprise. The film holds the possibility that MAX can try to take David back until the very end, when David astutely points out that his life as a space/time oddity will never be normal. He's the lynchpin for the entire film and the reason so much of it works. I was worried that I would find Joey Cramer's performance incredibly annoying, and while his 8 year-old little brother is a brat you just want to slap, David's a surprisingly sensitive child. Early in the film he says, "I don't know what I want out of life anymore," and instead of acting like an invincible know-it-all, David's quick to feel confused, scared and sad.
The best example of this is right after he's time-warped. For the few hours he's unknowingly in 1986, David very slow to realize he's in the future (though he's quick to identify a two-way mirror later on). Different people are living in his house and he's asked questions like, "What year is it? Who's the President of the United States?" He finally realizes something's amiss as his parents excitedly paw at him while wearing older-age makeup. Speaking of that makeup, Cartwright and DeYoung must have felt it a bit much. As they walk out of shadows, David is horrified to see that his parents have aged, and Silvestri's score gives a big sting as if to say, "Behold! The terrifying ravages of time that come with the passage of EIGHT YEARS!!" At the end of the film, David makes some strong, I-have-learned-from-this-experience-type decisions, like choosing to try and reclaim his regular life in 1978 and show brotherly love towards his annoying little spaz.
For this and many of the film's other strengths, I would probably have to thank the Producers Sales Organization (PSO) who independently produced the film before (according to IMDB) going bankrupt and selling the rights to Walt Disney Pictures who finished and distributed the film. After Something Wicked This Way Comes and Return to OZ failed to ignite the box office, I doubt Disney would have added so many dramatic elements into the beginning of Flight of the Navigator had they created the project (while FOTN is nowhere as dark as those two films, remember that Disney's next live-action film starring kids came out three years later: the sci-fi/comedy/adventure Honey, I Shrunk the Kids).
How are the two time periods portrayed?
While the film's ten minute-take on 1978 is never particularly convincing (which is no fault of the costume or production design which nails fashion and props of the era), director Randal Kleiser fully adopts David's point of view and gives FOTN a very low view of 1986. Sarah Jessica Parker is mocked for having a shock of purple hair, the many flavors of Coca-Cola (New Coke, Coke Classic, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Coke) are portrayed as mind-boggling, music videos (namely the one below for "Lose Your Love" by Blancmange) are pretentious and stupid, and the very mention of Twisted Sister bring derision (while bands like The Beach Boys are declared to be "music"). David's not happy with 1986, so when he chooses to risk his life and travel back to 1978, the film erases this horrible future like it was 1985B in Back to the Future Part II. By growing up with his parents and not becoming a missing child, David will somehow defeat the changing cultural tide and keep "Starsky and Hutch"on the air! Like Kleiser's earlier film Grease, Flight of the Navigator is very nostalgic for a previous time.
What about the special effects?
For my money they hold up quite well. Whether flying around or hovering in mid-air, the ship and its floating staircase are still a small wonder to behold. Sure, we know it's fake, but with the exception of a rear-projected scene in Tokyo and the obvious stop-motion staircase morphing into fluid, we marvel at the ship as a well-executed effect. The ships are currently stored at Disney World: one's the the shiny Cool Ship of Tomorrowland, and the other's slowly rusting at Disney's Hollywood Studios backlot (where I saw it back in the late '90s).
While you can occasionally see the tracks/strings, the puppetry for MAX and the Puckmarin gives those characters energy and really brings them to life (okay, the Puckmarin doesn't move quite as much, but he's so darn cute). I quickly stopped thinking of MAX as a puppet and took him as a real part of the ship.
Speaking of MAX, is he amusing or annoying?
Opinions are mixed on the voice acting of Paul Reubens (credited as Paul Mall), and while his goofier voice is endearing to some, it's grating to others. Now I want to be clear that Reubens (who would later work with FOTN director Randal Kleiser on Big Top Pee-Wee) is NOT straight-up reusing his Pee-Wee voice, nor is he telling particularly crude or groan-inducing jokes. His humor, and the humor throughout the whole film, is the kind that would make an eight year-old laugh: lame, but unoffensive. He'll occasionally throw in a Robin Williams-esque impersonation, but I didn't think the film was hurt by having MAX speak in a more "human" tone. I think Reubens is a talented voice-over artist, but I'll let you be the judge:
Below are two clips of Reubens doing MAX's serious voice (where his robotic tone is warm, yet still a little alien) and comedic voice (which would sound so familiar to any kid in the '80s that it makes me wonder why Reubens chose to be credited anonymously).
Does Flight of the Navigator need to be remade?
I personally don't think so, since the themes of heartache stemming from time-traveling abduction and adventure/friendship from flying around with MAX were pretty well covered. If it's still going through, I would hope they follow the story structure of the original and focus on how much the world has changed within the past eight years, since technology moves at an exponential rate nowadays. I would also make a higher branch of the government the main menace, because I would keep thinking, "Wait a minute, NASA can't lock people up and experiment on them for an indeterminate amount of time!"
Or go an entirely different way with the story and have David be a robotic replicant. Everyone in the original is flabbergasted by David's sudden, un-aged appearance, yet they don't question that he is who he says he is (his parents happily embrace their little boy when he should be 20 years old). Even when NASA is scanning his brain and finds data in an alien language, they think David's the helpless victim of an intergalactic experiment. Embed some horror elements into the film and make MAX a robotic agent of the brutal Phaelons who kidnap and replace species of various worlds in order to take over planets from the inside. That would surprise the kids.
A remake of Flight of the Navigator was announced last year, with Brad Copeland as writer, David Hoberman & Todd Lieberman as producers and a release date of 2011. There's been no new information about the project since June, which is fine because the last time these three got together they made Wild Hogs.