Flight of the Navigator

(Randal Kleiser, USA, 1986)


At least since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, fiction for children has been obsessed with the fantastic journeys undertaken by little men and women. Just as children’s own bodies and minds are at a crucial and uncertain stage of expansion, so too does the world suddenly become a strange, labyrinthine space, full of secret openings and passageways.

Randal Kleiser’s Flight of the Navigator links these perennial concerns of children’s fiction with the newer conventions of the sci-fi fantasy film. Like Back to the Future (1984) or Playing Beatie Bow (1986), this film takes its young hero, David (Joey Cramer), on a journey through not only space, but also time.

Falling down a ravine while playing one day, David blacks out and wakes up, to his amazement, eight years later. He has not aged or changed in any way, but the world around him certainly has. Fashions have turned over a few times between 1978 and 1986. MTV and purple punk hairdos appear strange and incomprehensible to David – and it’s a pity that Klesier does not do more with this line of humour. NASA scientists discover that David’s brain can speak directly to their computers in code about intelligent life on a faraway planet named Phaelon.

Clearly, David has already been on one amazing journey, without remembering it. And he is about to be taken on another. Enter the robot-spaceship Max, which has lost its way home to Phaelon and needs to scan the directions locked in David’s brain.

For most of what amounts to a loose and digressive plot, David zips around the world navigating Max and eluding capture. The exhilaration of the film lies simply in these images of unrestrained speed and unimpeded vision, an anarchic dream of freedom for all children, biological and otherwise. The old Beach Boys song which accompanies David’s travel is delightfully apt: "I Get Around".

But Flight of the Navigator is a Walt Disney production, and Disney’s fables for children always tame the anarchic energies they promise to unleash once and for all. There must be a moral education for the child; he must learn to accept his proper, acceptable home base.

So it goes, inevitably, for David. Rather than live in the future or journey into outer space, he decides to return to "where he belongs". Ho hum. His ultimate act of conformity is reinforced by the film when it provides him with a tiny orphan alien – equivalent, perhaps, to a Cabbage Patch Doll – to care for and protect. (Unfortunately, this little creature is so tacky you can see the strings holding him up.)

Max, too, receives an education. He changes, in the fateful split-second of his brain scan of David, from a classically rational computer to a zany, youthful robot. Max is another cute mechanical alien to grace the big screen, in the often painful tradition that runs from Star Wars (1977) to Short Circuit (1986).

But Max is invested with a sense of real, childlike fun. Both his voice (supplied by Paul Mall) and his brand of humour seem strongly indebted to America’s extraordinary media hero Pee-wee Herman, once upon a time the star of a radically weird children’s television show and a wonderful film, Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Max is easily the best thing in Flight of the Navigator.

Other aspects do not work so well or as intriguingly. It is in many respects a slow, flaccid film. Kleiser pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to his own smash hit Grease (1978), but he cannot hide the fact that he has become, in the ’80s, a somewhat uninspired hack. (The ’90s would see yet another role for him, as maker of the mainstream gay comedy-drama It’s My Party, 1996.) Flight of the Navigator is full of interesting leads and ideas which never go anywhere – for example, the question of David’s burgeoning romantic inclinations.

Worst of all is the central character himself. One expects a child full of dynamism and contradiction to be at the centre of such a fable. But only very brave films such as Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos (1975) or Victor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), less intent on moral safety, seem able to invent truly interesting and complex child characters. David, by contrast, is simply blank and cute. When he says, "I don’t have any vectors, I’m just a kid!", he is sadly accurate.

Flight of the Navigator is as good as many pieces of children’s fiction. But then, this is a genre which too often settles for less.

MORE Kleiser: Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

© Adrian Martin July 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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