I watched Flight of the Navigator, a 1986 Disney feature film about a boy abducted by aliens and returned home eight years later, about fifty billion times as a kid. I saw it on TV as an adult a few years ago, and a recent Shortpacked! strip inspired me to watch it again. Never does the awesomeness fade.
The movie plays on the fact that it’s about aliens by teasing you several times with what seem to be straightforward alien encounters, but then turn out to be normal things like a silver frisbee being thrown at a dog competition, a blimp passing overhead, and even a silver water tower during the part of the movie when you just know that this time, the aliens are coming! When the aliens actually do come, you don’t even see it; our protagonist passes out, then wakes up, and the abduction is over.
This is brilliant because it builds suspense–when will we see the spaceship?–and also allows the you to experience events alongside the protagonist. David doesn’t remember being abducted, so you live through that discovery with him. And it’s completely realistic. David doesn’t immediately adjust to being dropped eight years into the future. He’s lost, scared, and confused. When he finds his house with a different family in it, he completely shuts down.
(I’ve got to tell you, that child’s acting is amazing. He far outshines some of the adult actors in bit parts, like the NASA security guards.)
This was the first time I’ve watched the movie where I noticed when Max described himself as a “drone ship”. I guess that should be obvious, but it struck a chord for me this time. Max has a personality, even before he scans David’s brain and gets a sense of humor. He’s very proud, and he seems to care about the creatures he’s tasked with “sampling”. But he’s a drone–a servant of the aliens we never see. This is an example of another way the movie is brilliant. It isn’t just a straightforward action adventure. There are different levels you can experience at different times in your life.
Another example of the movie’s nuance is how the antagonists aren’t really bad guys. Sure, they aren’t particularly sensitive to David’s needs and fears. But they’re not trying to hurt him. They want to know where he’d been, or how he’d been sent through time. And they want to know what his connection is to the spaceship they found. As a matter of national (and planetary) security, you could argue they need to know those things. So a little brusqueness is perfectly understandable. I almost feel sorry for them at the end!
David and Max’s relationship is great, too. They don’t get along right away. They take time figuring each other out. But in the end, they’re friends who care deeply about each other. David’s relationship with his little brother Jeff takes a similar path, as meeting Jeff’s older self shows David that his brother isn’t such a bad guy after all. This is a movie about evolving relationships and growing up–much deeper than just a jaunt on a spaceship.
Despite the complex themes, the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are some extremely funny moments, including when David and Max stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and a group of tourists think the spaceship is part of a display.
Beyond the amazing storytelling, there’s just the coolness of it all. The spaceship set was awesome, but I was also enthralled by all the computers, wondering how they worked and wishing for my own set of computerized star charts. And Flight of the Navigator was my introduction to the idea that time slows down as you approach the speed of light. Beyond that, there’s all the beautiful aerial video, making you yearn to take to the skies in your own ship from outer space.
If that’s not enough to convince you…the music rules. Seriously, just watch the scene where David is riding inside the R.A.L.F. unit. It’s impossible to keep from dancing in your chair.