The hardest part of the This Week in Box Office History feature is picking a favorite movie for each year. So many good movies go under the radar; it’s hard to give more than a quick shout-out to some of the fun films that are just not quite good enough to grab the top spot. So to remedy that, we’ll be picking up the slack by dishing out Retro Reviews for some of our favorite flicks.
Retro Review: Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Flight of the Navigator tells the story of a young boy, David, who is abducted by an alien science vessel, whisked around the galaxy, and then dropped back on Earth…8 years after he disappeared. His life is turned upside down, as his family has moved, and his world has moved on. Suffering from shock, he is taken to a medical testing facility, where it is discovered that his mind contains a nearly endless volume of star charts, astronomical data, and curiously detailed schematics for an alien vessel (which NASA has recovered, but has kept hidden from the public). NASA steps in to examine the boy, but the alien ship itself intervenes to spring David from their grasp. The ship’s computer (voiced by an uncredited Paul Reuben…yeah, THAT Paul Reuben) tells David that the ship’s mission was to gather specimens, bring them home to be studied, and then return the life-forms to their own space and time…but unfortunately humans are too squishy for time travel, and David was taken back to his home, but not to his original time. After filling David’s head with information (on a lark, apparently), the ship attempted to leave, but ran into electric lines, fried it’s internal navigation unit, and crashed. Long story short, the ship’s A.I. (dubbed Max) needs David to navigate for it so it can go home. This places David in a dilemma, since he has already lost his home, and a further trip would only add to his problems, yet he really has no place in the world of 1986 (I remember the fashion that was current back then, and I think leaving the solar system is perfectly preferable to rocking acid-washed jean jackets, thank you very much.)
Two Part Tragedy
This film suffered its own crash landing before making it to cinemas: originally turned down by Disney, the film was set to be independently produced before financial problems sank the project. Disney stepped in to buy the nearly complete film, and eventually chipped in to finish the project. Due to this bifurcated process, Flight of the Navigator can feel like two films welded together.
The first film is mature and psychological. Focusing on David’s plight, the audience is given a rather heart-rending look at cultural displacement and loss of identity. Similar to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this aspect of Flight of the Navigator is somber and frightening. David is terrified by his surroundings, and those he trusts most are no help to him, either from disbelief or from a desire to isolate him and use the information in his head. There are touching moments of trust to balance this, in the form of David’s formerly antagonistic little brother (now, technically, his older brother), and from a young medical assistant (Sarah Jessica Parker) who treats David with honesty and care.
The second film is all Disney and Paul Reubens. The ship’s A.I. gains a hilarious and childish personality from accessing David’s mind, and Paul Reubens is probably the perfect voice actor to bring this jocular creation to life. The menagerie of creatures aboard the vessel is pure Disney, akin to the creatures from Lilo and Stitch. Disney also flexes its visual muscles, using then cutting-edge special effects to digitally render the ship as it flashes through the atmosphere and the galaxy. The tone is decidedly lighter, with several well placed references to songs, shows, and films of the era (most notably director Randal Kleier’s previous projects, Grease and Starsky and Hutch).
Lost in Space
Flight of the Navigator just narrowly missed becoming an important film. If it had continued its hard look at survival and identity, it would probably be frequently mentioned alongside other Sci-Fi icons such as Close Encounters and Cocoon. As a Disney film aimed at kids, it is a bit too deep and dark, containing not only frightening themes (and creatures…I know that bat-thing is supposed to be cuddly, but…blech!) but also lacking a ton of spectacle to keep young viewers riveted. The flight scenes are still pretty cool, and the soundtrack is funky in a John Carpenter kind of way, but David’s journey is ultimately more personal than physical, and can feel a touch boring. I would recommend it heartily for fans of Paul Reubens’ brand of silliness, but even that has a bitter pill behind it: it was on this film that Pee-Wee Herman met Randal Kleiser, and the pair went on to create the giant let-down that was Big Top Pee-Wee.