Throwback Thursday: Jumping in the Way Back Machine to Watch Flight of the Navigator

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Flight of the Navigator theatrical poster: Walt Disney Presents Flight of the Navigator: Come along on the greatest adventure of the summer! Underneath, it shoes David and Puck in the navigator chair of the spaceship.

Flight of the Navigator theatrical poster

In 1982, the world was thrilled by the adventures of a boy and his alien, who just wanted to phone home. In 1986, audiences of a much smaller variety got to watch the adventures of an alien and his boy, who just wants to go home. I’m talking about Disney’s Flight of the Navigator.

The film opens in 1978 and follows 12-year-old David as he teaches his dog to catch a Frisbee, hates on his little brother, and enjoys time with his parents. On the 4th of July, he is asked to pick up his brother from a neighbor’s house. In the process, he falls down a ravine and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, everything has changed. He’s still 12, but the year is now 1986. Luckily, the cops are able to find his parents right away, but no one can explain why he hasn’t aged in eight years. David comes to the attention of NASA because he ends up having dreams of a flying saucer . . . the same flying saucer that NASA just happened to find. They bring him in for tests, but want to keep him there. He decides to escape in the saucer (of course) and now the race is on. Can he get home before NASA captures him?

David in the pilot's seat of the alien craft

“You are…the Navigator!”

I didn’t realize this when at 12 when I first saw the movie, but NASA has a lot of guns. I blame Howard Hessemen, who plays the lead scientist. He was fresh off his stint as Johnny Fever (WKRP In Cincinnati) and hadn’t quite gotten around to working at teaching kids to be better (Head of the Class). But in all seriousness, these NASA guys are playing for keeps: they actually want to fire guns at a kid. Of course, 1986 was not a good year for NASA and kids. Besides David being tested and prodded for information he doesn’t know he has in his head, we also have the cult classic SpaceCamp where kids “accidentally” get shot into space. Maybe this is why NASA has lost a lot of funding.

David, in a red and blue striped shirt, jeans, and backpack is looking at the hovering spaceship that is *held down* by ropes to keep it from going anywhere.

David looking at the hovering spaceship

Besides the rampant gun happiness of NASA, this is a fun film. Who doesn’t want to go on an adventure when you’re 12? Especially one that involves finding an alien aboard a spaceship and then becoming friends with them. We don’t get a lot of family friendly films like this anymore. There’s an innocence about it that started to disappear from films of the late ’80s when grim and gritty started to become reality. Bring back the childlike wonder!

This also plays as a coming-of-age movie to a certain extent. David has to make a decision at the end of the film that will change his life no matter what happens. I don’t want to spoil too much of the 30-year-old film, but it should be noted that by the end of the film, he’s a little bit older and a little bit wiser. He’s also probably going to pay a lot more attention in geography class.

Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman forever) is the voice of the alien Max and does just the right amount of voice-over work so that there’s only a few moments when he falls into the “Pee-Wee voice”. Once again, playing sincere goes a long way here. Sarah Jessica Parker has a small role as a seriously young NASA intern who befriends David. You might recognize David’s parents: Veronica Cartwright who played Lambert in Alien (I’m sure you’ve seen it), and Cliff DeYoung who played was Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment (you should see it). The aging makeup to show eight years passing and how these parents were affected is wonderfully subtle and well-handled. You can see the devastation and worry lines on their faces showing what they went through in not knowing what happened to their son.

It’s surprising that, even with guns and child abduction ideas, the movie is still incredibly innocent and fun. That’s not an easy thing to achieve, but it works. If you’re old like me, then it’s a great way to visit a more naive time. If you’re young (unlike me), then it’s a great way to be engaged in a film that’s 30-years-old. If you’re currently an adult with children of your own, it’s a great time to introduce them to an underrated gem. Enjoy!

The tiny alien being kept by the Pee-Wee Herman-voiced alien whom David keeps as a pet.

Vote for Puck.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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