Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Flight of the Navigator (1986)

For my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and for a friend's birthday--two special occasions rolled into one--we watched the 1986 science fiction film Flight of the Navigator.I had not seen that movie in probably close to twenty years, ever since my grandmother taped it for me (I suspect off the Disney Channel because that was something I remember watching at her house when I was little), so I was cool with seeing it again. Here's the podcast. And now the review...

The Plot

David Freeman is a twelve-year-old boy living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1978. He has a dog named Bruiser who can't catch a Frisbee and an annoying little brother Jeff, who makes fun of him for his crush on pretty neighbor Jennifer Bradley. He's sent out to retrieve Jeff from a friend's house and falls into a ditch. When he climbs out, he finds strangers living in his house and that eight years have passed. Perhaps his strange situation has to do with a flying saucer that has crash-landed nearby...

And now for the review...

The Good

*The film has got some real pathos in it. When David discovers an old couple living at what he thought was his family's home, his emotional breakdown is quite believable. And the poignancy of his parents when they find the son they thought was dead alive again is genuine.

*The science of David's abduction and why so much time passed during what was, for him, a very short period is quite well thought out even if they use the meaningless term "light-speed theory" instead of the more technical term "time dilation."

*David's fish-out-of-water attitudes toward 1980s popular culture are quite amusing. His favorite television shows have been canceled and there're these strange "music videos" on TV in their place, he doesn't recognize any of the popular bands, and he's not pleased.

*The teenage punk Jeff is amusing.

*The NASA scientist who wants to study David doesn't engage in the cliched "we can make you disappear in the name of national security" routine like one might expect. Instead he manipulates David and his parents into agreeing to what they think is two days of examination by playing the "don't you want to know what happened" card. That's a bit of character development and a bit of realism--not only does he not want to bully anybody, but he's intelligent enough to know that could backfire.

*There are a couple "flying saucer fakeouts" early on in which things the viewer might think are the first appearance of the aliens...aren't. I thought they were clever.

*In the second part of the movie, there are a lot of 1980s toys to be seen. Whether product placement or cash-free attempt to set the scene, either way works.

The Bad

*After the "Trimaxion Drone Ship" scans David's brain, his robotic personality is replaced with a deranged new one voiced by Paul Reubens. Yes, Pee-Wee Herman. Although this can be funny at times, most of the time it was rather annoying.

*The movie gets really dull in the last third to half. This is a pretty succinct description of what was a pretty big problem with the film. And the ending is downright saccharine--too sweet and sentimental. I can understand why certain characters say the things they do and since this is a kid's movie subtlety isn't always doable, but still.

*There are some missed opportunities. David never reunites with Bruiser even though the dog is still alive and healthy even after eight years (a long time for a larger dog), nor does he even inquire about Jennifer. He remarks that all his friends would be 20 now, but doesn't go far beyond that.

*The opening sequence with the dogs catching the Frisbees took a little long.

*Not all of the special effects have held up. The practical effects like the spaceship, the eyeball-tentacle that interacts with people, etc. all seem fine (although the floor of the spaceship has a very "80s material look" to it), but the CGI isn't particularly convincing. The movie was made in 1986--well before the glories of The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park, but still.

The Verdict

A good movie for kids, but see it only once if you're feeling nostalgic. I doubt you'll want to see it a second time. 6 out of 10.

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