Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986)

Flight of the Navigator follows 12-year-old David Freeman (Joey Cramer) into the woods on a mission to find his little brother. While chasing after the jerkwad, David falls into a ravine and gets knocked out. When he awakes, he discovers that he’s been missing for eight years… and he hasn’t aged a day. To make matters worse, NASA would like to speak to him about all the classified information he’s been unwittingly sharing with his psychologist. What the hell is going on? And is it worth bothering to find out before they remake this thing?

THE STORY:
If you’ve been paradoxed to death from all these Time Out movies, rest assured, you’re safe here. Most of the time travel, technobabble, and opportunities for ripples and warps and what-the-fucks happen off-screen, but you still get a great mystery to follow as you learn just how this kid ended up jumping from 1978 to 1986. Oh, I’m sorry for the F-bomb back there. This is a children’s film, after all… and it’s a fantastic one.

Pictured: A typical Disney test-screening.

I may be a little biased because I saw this when I was a child, but I did watch it this time around with some (adult) friends who hadn’t seen it, and they were completely drawn in to the whole mystery. There were legitimate jaw-drops at some of the reveals, honest. And it’s not just compelling; it’s smart. This movie made me interested in science. But, you know, show your kid Transformers or whatever.

“Cocks balls pubes tits toys!”

Speaking of goofy robots, the movie’s biggest downfall is probably the abrupt tone shift halfway through. David is accompanied in the film by an A.I. that he nicknames Max (Paul Reubens). There’s a moment where his circuitry goes all haywire and now he’s a fun-time wacky character for the smallest kids in the audience. My (adult) friends felt a bit betrayed that such a brilliant movie felt it suddenly needed some cartoony Jar-Jar sh– uh, poop. Frankly, I do too. They at least try to justify it as part of the story (in a similar way to the also-compelling-then-jarringly-goofy Explorers, another of my favorite science fiction films for children), but it nevertheless took some selling on my part.

Overall, it’s a great ride.

THE ACTING:
Oh, Joey Cramer. Where are you now?

At a sporting goods store in Canada, apparently.

Look, criticizing a child’s acting ability is something you should never feel good about. Though, looking at Joey’s filmography, we might have a “Peter Ostrum just wants to be a veterinarian” scenario on our hands; maybe he never really cared for acting. I don’t know. I’m not here to tell some guy his line delivery was flat and he was a bit too whiny when he was twelve freaking years old.

Hey, that lady from that thing is in this!

Does she play Sex or The City? I’ve never seen it.

My childhood crushes on women from time travel films aside, you know who does a pretty good job in this? Paul Reubens. Before he gets his zaniness upgrade, he actually makes a pretty good computer. His voice is dramatic without being sinister, but when you meet him and you have no idea what his directives are, he’s mysterious and even a bit frightening. Then he turns into Pee-Wee Herman, because of course he does.

“I’m sorry, Dave… Freeman.”

Hey, that WKRP guy, too!

Honestly, though, Howard Hesseman is engaging as a NASA scientist who can’t let David out of his sight. You could call him the “villain,” but there’s more depth to his character than that. He’s a man with a goal. If David escapes, one of the greatest discoveries in human history could be lost forever. Both he and Max represent the moral gray area of scientific testing, and each role is played magnificently.

Damn, this movie’s great.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
For those who’ve seen this, aren’t those stairs the coolest?

For those who haven’t, this might blow your mind… Flight of the Navigator features CGI. In 1986. And it still holds up.

Suck it, Amidala.

The rest of the effects in the movie are achieved with models and puppetry, which you might remember as the way movies should always be made forever. The CGI is minimal but effective. Did that trend die post-Jurassic Park? I’m sure Cinemanaut John will talk about it at some point.

OTHER STUFF:

  • The music in this film was written by Alan Silvestri, who you may recognize as the composer for another 1980s time travel movie: Back to the Future. If you’re assuming it’s the same kind of brassy, triumphant score that follows Marty McFly through his epic adventures, you couldn’t be more wrong. And it couldn’t be more awesome.
  • There’s a scene in which David exposes his 1978 brain to the horrors of New Wave and MTV. I always thought the music video he watches was a parody of ’80s bands and was shot specifically for the film, but I was just informed that it is very real and it is very much “Lose Your Love” by Blancmange.
  • Try not to cringe when the movie loses some of its smartness by stating the urban legend that humans only use 10% of their brains as fact. The rest of it is very clever. Really.
  • I used the modern DVD cover up top because the original movie poster features a painting made out of nightmares. Gaze into the abyss…

I DO NOT LEAK.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Quite the opposite of that sentiment happens here. The NASA scientists trying to get to the bottom of David’s aging deficiency finally solve the problem and are nothing but pleased that, yes, this makes absolute sense. (The audience should react the same way.) David, on the other hand, spends most of the runtime shouting, “But that’s impossible!” His best time travel freak-out happens when he collapses tearfully in the stairwell of his former home.

“Where’s my mom and dad?”

FINAL THOUGHTS:
This has always been one of my absolute favorite children’s movies. Yes, the second half feels a bit like it’s pandering to the younger ones, but it’s Shakespeare compared to some of today’s more grating computerized cartoon sidekicks. It’s a more compelling time travel mystery than Premonition (ugh), and should you care, the timelines are paradox-free. (Mostly? Let’s talk about it.) If you’ve got kids and they’re not old enough for Timecop… well, number one, don’t ever tell them about Timecop, but also make time to show them Flight of the Navigator. If their attention spans haven’t been fully cocained by Little Miss Muffet: Robot Killer 3-D yet, that is.

NEXT WEEK:
Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.