March 8, 2015

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

David Freeman (Joey Cramer) is a 12 year-old boy living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On 4 July 1978 he takes a short-cut through the woods behind his house and falls into a small ravine. When he climbs out, the world has somehow jumped forward eight years and David has long been assumed dead. His return coincides with the NASA discovery of a crashed alien spacecraft, and it doesn't take long for the two events to become connected.

As part of my continuing rewatch of 1980s childrens and family films, I've had a fresh look at Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator. Independently produced but distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, it broadly slots in quite well alongside Disney's other live-action films of the period.

The Flight of the Navigator is a film of two very distinct halves: distinct in tone, content and most importantly of quality. It's a film that starts off with a highly intriguing premise and some great atmosphere. It ends as a bit of a childish farce. Had the film followed one tone or the other it might have worked completely. By straddling the two styles it runs the serious risk of breaking itself in half.

The first half is highly enjoyable, and takes its time establishing the full disorientation and trauma of somehow losing eight years of one's life. David's old home is gone, with his parents having moved across town. His little brother is now a teenager, several years older than he is. No one can explain how he has jumped forward eight years. When he is persuaded to move to a NASA laboratory to undergo tests, he - and the supervising science team - discover that he brain is now capable of communicating directly with computers in binary code. His mind has been filled with countless star charts of the entire galaxy, including areas of which NASA has no information. The film is told in the main from David's perspective, and a combination of an effective script, solid direction and Cramer's performance all help make it work. David's predicament is connected to a mysterious floating spacecraft stored in a nearby hangar, and once it and David are reunited this effective, rather gripping first half comes to an end.

Once David is onboard the spaceship, everything does tend to fall apart a little. The ship's talking computer (voiced by an uncredited Paul Reubens) begins as a fairly tedious and repetitive thing. Once it pulls the star charts out of David's memory it takes a bit of his personality as well, and transforms into a grating and jokey clown that I've always found irritating. This light-hearted, and to be honest rather pointless, third act really chafes against everything presented in the film before it. It annoyed me as a child; as an adult I'm no more entertained.

It is incredibly frustrating: the film does so much right in the beginning, and then loses it all in its final 40 minutes. The ending in particular irritates. The film's early scenes suggested a movie with a bit of depth and a willingness to present a slightly more dramatic, threatening story. The finale hits a reset button on all of it. You could argue that it's all well and good, since it is a childrens film, but I honestly believe children deserve a little more. They got it in the first half. It's just such an enormous pity about the second.

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