Film Logan Polk's Film Reviews Moving Pictures Ongoing Series

Moving Picture Vol. 32: Give Me a Signal

Moving Pictures Logo

Logan’s Moving Pictures is back to talk about a film that could be considered one of the best time-traveling adventure comedies of the 1980s. No, not Back to the Future silly goose… we’re talking FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR!

One of the things lost to us in the digital age of downloads and streaming is the absolute joy and excitement of the Sunday Night Movie. Sometimes it was a huge box office hit, something that played in theatres for a year or more, then hit home video, only to always be rented out (back in those days a VHS copy would cost you hundreds of dollars), or it would be some film that had barely been a blip but, hey, the studio could make some money back on it with commercials in prime time…but maybe just as often as either of those it would be a made for television film. The old-school equivalent of a Netflix Original I suppose. 

For a large majority of my life, I believed Flight of the Navigator fell into that last category, having first viewed it as part of “The Magical World of Disney” on ABC (their version of The Sunday Night Movie). It aired in two parts, so we had to wait a week to see the ending, and my Dad recorded it, either on BetaMax or VHS, I don’t remember which. So, for a while, our future viewings were just a pieced-together, grainy concoction, complete with commercial breaks and tracking issues. And if you don’t know what either of those are, get off my lawn. Eventually, though, we had a whole, commercial-free copy of the film, although knowing my Dad it was one we rented and he’d copied from the rental tape. And we watched the hell out of it.

The striped shirts are our cousins Daniel (blonde) and BJ (brown, and oft mentioned here). Our sisters Blake is in the back and Kelly (also mentioned before) is in the front.

That was at least thirty-five years ago, and I don’t think I’ve rewatched it at all in the last twenty, or at the very least since it became available on DVD. When I was perusing Ryan’s video collection, as I want to do for this column, I couldn’t believe I’d missed it up until now. And then I realized why. See, I have the DVD, which came in a pretty basic casing, but it was white instead of the usual black, with the cover slip being a fairly standout blue. Not Ryan’s copy. No, his is the Special Edition rerelease which came out just a few years ago, something I remember him bragging about to me when he received it. It had been a gift…from Adam (you know, the guy that runs this place). I’d forgotten all about it, as well as how jealous I was. Especially since it was sold out when I went to go grab a copy for myself!

As I said, I’d forgotten all about him having it, but when it did finally catch my eye I knew that meant it was time to revisit this classic from our childhood. But, since we live in the Age of Streaming, I decided to see if it was available on Disney+ before I broke into Ryan’s beloved Blu-Ray set. Fortunately, it is, which means there’s no reason you can’t watch (or rewatch) it as well.

If you’re not game for that though or need a refresher, Flight of the Navigator is the story of a young boy, David, who takes a spill in the woods near his house only to wake up and discover he’s been missing for eight years. Except, he hasn’t aged even one day. Nearby the government has discovered a UFO, and as government agents and David’s doctors work to discover the truth behind both events, it becomes apparent that they’re linked. And when David comes in contact with the UFO he unlocks the reasons behind his disappearance. When he befriends the intelligent ship, nicknamed Max, he begrudgingly agrees to help get Max on his way back home, but only if Max can get him back to his family.

Precocious, aren’t we?

It’s easy to dismiss this as a kind of E.T. clone, coming just four years after the release of the Spielberg masterpiece and featuring a friendship between an alien life form and a young boy from the suburbs. There are certainly very similar themes, and the dramatic arc is basically the same thing…so much so I was worried that revisiting it would just make me realize it really isn’t anything more than a cheap imitation. E.T. was never a movie we spent a ton of time watching as kids, but Flight of the Navigator…well, like I said, we watched the hell out of it. I think it’s fair to say we thought this was the better film. And I’m happy to say I still believe that to be true.

Yes, I am prepared for the torches and pitchforks.

I completely fell back in love with Flight of the Navigator, and as soon as the credits rolled I was ready to watch it again. Which, at about 90 minutes, makes it a pretty easy watch. There’s so much to Max that’s only barely hinted at, so much that is just barely fleshed out, but in a way that’s intriguing and not vexing. Joey Cramer, who plays young David, didn’t really get the career he deserved, with his big two roles coming here and in Runaway with Tom Sellick (Cramer’s first credit, and another childhood favorite). He’s just as fun and charismatic as Henry Thomas (that E.T. kid…), and we get the added benefit of having an alien who can truly converse with its costar. An alien voiced by an uncredited Paul Rubens, who kills it despite some limited screen time.

The effects work hold up incredibly well, especially since it features some of the earliest CGI in cinema, predating Terminator 2 by five years. There’s also the creature effects and puppetry, which get even less screen time but, as a kid, had the same impact that something like the cantina scene in Star Wars for me. Laine Liska and Mike Sorensen were two of the bigger names in the puppeteering department, and both worked on some of the most underrated films of the era. Things like Masters of the Universe, Short Circuit, and Alien 3. Their work made the time David spends on the ship seem far too short but in the best ways.

Us with the aforementioned sister Blake.

Living in a world of reboots and re-imaginings it’s no real shock to see that Disney hopes to add Flight of the Navigator to that list, with Bryce Dallas Howard directing no less. I’ve not been a huge fan of her as an actress, but I think her work behind the camera on the various Star Wars shows has been absolutely stellar, so if it must be done, she’s not a bad choice. Of course, my mind goes to the conversations Ryan and I would have had debating the merits of it. 

Can they recapture what makes the sci-fi/fantasy films of this era so perfect, especially those aimed at a younger audience? There’s this element of fright to them that seems to have been mostly lost over time. When horror director Eli Roth set about making a more family-friendly film with the adaptation of The House with the Clock in its Walls he reached out to Stephen Spielberg for some advice, and the only thing the legendary director offered him was “make it scary.”

As adults, I think we seem to take that as adding a lot of blood and jump out of your skin frights, but those movies I loved as a kid had a different kind of terror to them, and never all the same kind. Largely though, it comes from a place of facing the unknown, almost always without their parents to guide them. That’s never been truer than in Flight of the Navigator, but what it does better than most of the other films of its kind is show that fear of the unknown from the point of views of the kid and the parents, even if it’s just briefly.

A bit washed out, but our first attempt at bike riding. Yes they had training wheels.

I’m sure when I was younger that what David’s family went through never crossed my mind, but this time around, when David is reunited with his parents and little (big?) brother, it hit me pretty hard. These people spent eight years with no answers as to what happened to their son and brother. Eight years not knowing where he went, if he was still alive, hoping that he was okay if he was. But also mourning, because eight years without a trace and with no answers must mean that David is dead. They were stuck in an in-between state.

It’s a horrible place to be.

A few years before Ryan passed he got incredibly ill. They never figured out what was wrong, but he was admitted to the hospital a few weeks before Christmas and would spend a very long time there, at one point falling into a coma. It was pretty grim for a while. We would gather up at the hospital, filling up the waiting room, dozens and dozens of his friends and family. We’d take turns going in to talk to him, hoping for any kind of response. We comforted each other as best we could, but for most of that time, we were all hoping beyond hope that Ryan wasn’t lost to us while simultaneously mourning the fact that he very well could be.

As time marches on from his eventual passing I’ve found myself both grateful for the short years we got with him after that, but also immensely regretful I didn’t make more of that time. I’ll never forget the first thing he asked me when he finally woke up from his coma…he said “Do we do a podcast together?” That show was called Automatic for the People, and it’s the single creative thing, maybe the only creative thing, I’m most proud of in my life, because I got to do it with my brother. That we got to finish it on our own terms is also maybe the thing I’m most grateful for.

I thought about that time a lot, both as I watched Flight of the Navigator, and in the days after. Living in grief, holding out hope, and knowing that you’ll never get an answer to the question of “why?” is a hell of a thing. If we’re very lucky we get a second chance to try and make the most of it.

Moving Pictures will return in two weeks…

%d bloggers like this: