Flight of the Navigator (1986) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

You dumb dorks are the inferior species!

Flight of the Navigator is a clever coming of age story mixed with aspects of science-fiction. It fits with similar youth-oriented stories from the 80s but stands out as a memorable and lighthearted adventure as well.

First Impressions

A young boy is hooked up to some EEG machines that appear to be showing things about spaceships and other planets that the boy could not know. He also appears to have gone missing for 8 years. He then boards a spaceship and meets some different types of aliens. Initially the trailer for this looks a bit like Explorers or E.T., but there’s probably much more to this film.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Flight of the Navigator

Flight of the Navigator title card.

The Fiction of The Film

On July 4, 1978 in South Florida, David Freeman (Joey Cramer) drives home with his parents from a Frisbee Dog Championship event. His younger brother, Jeff (Albie Whitaker), is dropped off at a friends house on the way home, stopping the continual bickering between the boys. Later his parents Bill (Cliff de Young) and Helen (Veronica Cartwright) ask him to see what’s taking Jeff so long to return home. They are ready to go out on the boat to celebrate the Fourth. Jeff startles David along the path in the woods, and then runs home. David falls into a ravine while investigating a mysterious noise.

He hops back up and returns home, but when he tries to enter the door is locked. There is another couple that is not his parents in the house and they call the police to assist David. It is now eight years later and David is driven to where his family now lives. They are all eight years older, but he looks the same as the day he disappeared. David is taken to the hospital for some tests and the EEG machine becomes inundated with schematics and star charts, plus some strange alien language. Dr. Faraday (Howard Hesseman) of NASA hears of the case and gets the Freeman’s permission, exclusively David’s, to take him to their lab to figure out where he’s been for eight years.

NASA has discovered a sleek, silver craft that they cannot get inside of, which matches the schematics stored in David’s head. They run some tests on him and realize, even though he cannot remember, the information in his head says he’s visited the planet Phaelon, 560 light-years away; a trip that only took David 4.4 hours at near the speed of light, but many years passed on Earth during that trip. David makes friends with Carolyn (Sarah Jessica Parker), an intern working at NASA. She lets him know that the scientists plan to keep him longer than the 2 days promised to his parents.

Flight of the Navigator

David sits alone and scared in a police station, finding out that he’s been listed as a missing person…for 8 years!

Scared and frustrated by the lack of answers, David sneaks out of his secure room in a mail delivery robot named RALF and discovers the silver spaceship, from which David has been hearing strange voices. A portal opens into the ship and David is welcomed aboard by Max (Paul Rubens), the computer voice of the Trimaxion Drone Ship, of which David is the Navigator. David panics as the guards come to the ship and he flies away with Max obeying his commands. Max informs David that he was chosen as a representative of life on the planet and taken to Phaelon for study.

Unfortunately, Max was unable to put David “back” where he had come from, as the time travel would be dangerous to a human. Max needs David to restore the Star Charts that it lost during an accident with a power line. David “downloads” the contents in his brain to Max, which also puts some of David’s personality into the computer. Max is now more “human,” quoting pop culture jingles and sayings of the day. Not understanding how to fly the ship, David ends up in Tokyo accidentally, as NASA keeps track of strange UFO sightings around the globe.

Max and David bond and eventually make it back to Florida. David pulls into a gas station with the alien ship and calls home to get Jeff (Matt Adler) to create a signal so David can find the new house. Setting off fireworks from the roof, Jeff creates a beacon that David and Max home in on. But David realizes, when he sees the NASA vehicles around his home, that he will never belong here, and always be probed for questions about his adventures. He convinces Max to risk the time travel, which they do, returning David to the same moment he was taken. He finds his family at their boat having lost no time, but having a much bigger understanding of how important these people are in his life.

That is my family, but that’s NOT my home. MY home is back in 1978!” – David

Flight of the Navigator

David and his parents and brother, listen to the pitch from Dr. Faraday about allowing NASA to help figure out what happened to him.

History in the Making

Flight of The Navigator is unique in the combined genres of 80s time travel films and youth oriented science-fiction. Time travel tales had been gaining popularity with the previous year’s blockbuster, Back to the Future, and studios were working to get their own stories filmed. Flight of the Navigator was distributed by Disney, but was not specifically a Disney film. They bought the rights to release the film in theaters while another company, Producers Sales Organization, produced the film. So while the film bears the Disney name, they did not appear to have any direct control over the content. The film was directed by Randal Kleiser, the director of the hit films Grease and The Blue Lagoon; both youth oriented films, but not in the same style or genre to be sure.

The film plays to a younger demographic, with David being twelve years old. The story centers around his life and the events that transport him into the future. It could be lumped in with other similar youth-oriented films from the 80s like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or Explorers (or even non genre films like The Goonies or Cloak & Dagger). The film even starred the young actor from the Tom Selleck/Gene Simmons futuristic action film, Runaway. These examples are in contrast to older teen-oriented films from the time like Back to the Future, Weird Science, or The Last Starfighter, which were also popular but obviously aimed at older audiences. Flight of the Navigator is definitely told from the child’s point of view, but has some other elements about it that differ from the majority of other kid-centric films of the day.

First, the film does not feature any real antagonist. Usually in these films there’s some overbearing or over the top adult that functions as an antagonist. Keys and the faceless government agents in E.T., or the Fratelli’s in The Goonies for instance. Flight of the Navigator doesn’t portray the adults in a malicious sort of way. Howard Hesseman’s Dr. Faraday is really only genuinely curious about David’s situation. He does not seem to have an ulterior motive to use the technology to create a weapon, or lock the boy up. At worst, he’s a little caught up in the project and forgets that he’s dealing with a child separated from his parents. The film also functions as an emotional story for the adults watching as well. While kids watching the movie might be excited in the adventure, or concerned about David’s plight, adults can easily tap into the feelings that his parents must be going through. Thinking that their son is dead, and then seeing him eight years later not having aged a bit might bring up any number of feelings for the parents watching.

Flight of the Navigator

David befriends Carolyn who shows him the RALF, a mail service robot in use by the Space Agency.


As with many of the 80s films that featured a young protagonist or cast, a majority of them dealt with wish fulfillment, and Flight of the Navigator is no different. Even though the core story is about a lost child, the character still gets to experience the rush of flying a spaceship and interacting with an intelligent computer and alien creatures (including the puckmarin). This idea of including the audience with the adventures of the lead character was something that has occurred for some time, but prior to the release of Star Wars, it always seemed more passive. Star Wars put the audience in the action, and other films followed suit. The advancements in special effects are probably the major reason for this change.

While this film includes aspects of time travel it’s not really a time travel film. It’s more of a coming of age story that happens to have some science-fiction and time travel elements in it. Flight of the Navigator also is the first time travel created with a young hero. With the exception of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, a teenager, all the other time travel films have involved adults who usually have some sort of control in their predicament. But here, David is taken by an alien race for study. They intend to replace him at the moment he was taken, using time travel, but soon realize that his species might not survive the trip. The film actually relies more on David’s encounter with advanced technology and alien species, than the deus ex machina moment of Max’s ability to travel through time, which returns David home again.

Flight of the Navigator

One of the chrome tiles in the spaceship contains an icon that looks very much like a Flux Capacitor, a sly nod to “Back to the Future”.

Societal Commentary

While having stated above that Flight of the Navigator was not really a Disney film, it meets a number of the criteria that is often seen in films by that studio. It’s youth-oriented, deals with a family and family problems, and presents the story as a coming of age drama about David understanding his place in his world and within his family. The film opens with David feeling put-upon by his parents. He is the oldest child and as such should exude more maturity. Yet he constantly bickers with his younger brother, calling him names like “dork,” and “scuzbucket!” David’s adventures out of his time, force him to fend for himself. He gathers a sudden maturity when he decides to risk time travelling, and potentially dying, so that he can return to the moment he actually belongs to. Once back, he sees his family relationships with new eyes, realizing he had taken much of those encounters for granted. He shocks his younger brother by not only forgiving him, but telling him he loves him. David is earnest in his new found realization that these moments are to be treasured, as he could easily wake up again and find his family gone.

Flight of the Navigator

David examines a menagerie of aliens collected by Max on his travels.

The Science in The Fiction

Many science-fiction films take their cues from previous stories and use the pseudo-science created by others to explain the futuristic and mysterious properties of the technology. But Flight of the Navigator takes some cues from a real knowledge of physics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity to present realistic explanations for the technological and science-fictiony elements. When Dr. Faraday queries David about his travel, the boy might not remember anything, but the template of Max’s programming in his head sure does. It reveals that the trip was 560 light years and only took 2.2 solar hours. Assuming that the computer was correcting for Earth solar hours, this gives the scientists proof of Einstein’s theory that as one approaches the speed of light, time slows down, or dilates. This explains why David didn’t age. Since from his perspective, travelling at light speed (or near light speed), his trip only took about 4 hours and 24 minutes. But people on Earth were moving on as normal, which yields the 8 year gap in ages between David relative to everyone else.

David also has the star charts and other data from Max downloaded into his brain. This is presumably a gift from the Phaelon’s for allowing them first contact, but it comes in handy for the characters since Max lost his set of charts when he crashed into an electrical tower while looking at some flowers. So how is all this data fitting in David’s brain? Max indicates the old myth that humans only use 10% of their brain. Presumably that would indicate that the other 90% is “free” for other storage. That’s not really the case. It makes for a good sci-fi plot, allowing characters to evolve and utilize more of the brain as in Scanners or The Dead Zone, but that’s not how the brain works. Different parts of the brain activate for different processes, and never all at once. In the revised timeline where David is placed back with his parents, does the data in his head start to “leak” out as he gets older? Or maybe it gets discovered at some point later by a brain scan. There are several interesting possibilities for continuing the story.

Flight of the Navigator

David freaks out some local teens as he asks for directions to Fort Lauderdale from his spaceship.

The Final Frontier

While many other films get credit for breaking the boundaries of new special effects film technology, Flight of the Navigator was a stepping stone on the road to the realistic computer graphic imagery available today. Films like Star Trek II, TRON, and The Last Starfighter set the stage with digital models incorporated into the plot of the film. This film utilized the first use of reflection mapping in a feature film on the body of the highly reflective spaceship. Reflection mapping is the creation of a distorted reflection on a digital model. It mimics the way light and the spatial imagery interact with the object, in the way a shiny chrome bumper reflects elements of the light and objects in the vicinity. This was used to fuller effect in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day on the alloy based T-1000 character, but the groundwork was laid here in this film.

There’s also no denying the one huge similarity between the ship (Max) and the Disney ride, released in January of the following year, Star Tours. This would be the fact that Paul Rubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) also voiced the robot Rex, who is the pilot of the Starspeeder 3000. One has to wonder if his performance as Max here caught Disney’s (mouse) ears and they pulled him into that project. Fans of the film can speculate on who may be the new voice of Max, as a reboot/remake of the film is in development for a potential Disney+ streaming service release sometime in the future.

I found Flight of the Navigator to be a fun and charming film that somehow I missed out on during the last 40 years. It has definite fun moments for audiences (Max and David singing “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys is one) and subtle nods to other films of the era (the owner of Al’s Gator Farm suggesting that the spaceship he just saw leave only wanted to “phone home”, as a nod to E.T.’s classic phrase). If you’ve never had a chance to watch the film it’s much more mature than one might expect from the trailer, and easily an emotional journey about being a better person and growing up with a broader view of the world. So, until next week, see you later Navigator!

Coming Next

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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