Flight of the Navigator is one of a slew of time travel films to have appeared in the 1980s that mixed fantasy and science-fiction with teenage coming of age. Here’s why it’s one of the most interesting…
This piece contains plot spoilers.
The 1980s is riddled with great time travel movies. The stand out is undoubtedly Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis’ nostalgic comedy about a teenager who compromises his own existence after his time-travelling adventure gets in the way of his mother and father falling in love. It’s a terrific conceit and one that’s enlivened by the energy of the film’s sparkling spirit.
1986’s Flight of the Navigator may well be best known for Sarah Jessica Parker’s hair or child star turned real life bank robber Joey Cramer. But it does accomplish one key thing: it’s a great children’s movie.
It has the adventure and sense of wide-eyed wonder that made E.T. so great, it has some memorable otherworldly characters, and a joyous, feelgood ending. It also has a loveable, relatable lead – a nice guy teenager who loves his family but suffers from recognisable anxieties: the unruly younger brother, the first crush and possible rejection, the search for identity.
Back To The Future rode the crest of a wave that combined another popular theme: teenage coming of age. It was these two themes that influenced Flight of the Navigator, a film released a year after Zemeckis’ time travel classic. Here we have a young boy from a seemingly normal American family (the sort of ideal that a studio such as Disney, which distributed the film, wanted to celebrate) abducted by an alien and returned to earth, without having aged, eight years later.
His family have therefore grown old. Life has moved on. The boy witnesses a world he’s not familiar with. Pop music has changed, technology has modernised, slang language is different. It’s the reverse of Marty in Back To The Future trying to come to terms with the 1950s compared to his recognisable 1980s existence. It’s a metaphor for how we feel our way into the world as kids, that childhood innocence peeling away.
Similarly, director Randal Kleiser, possibly best known for making Grease, brings this fish out of water story back to the family. The aged, cracking skin of mum and dad, their hair losing its natural colour and beginning to grey. His younger brother, once the runt of the family, is grown up, their chronological roles as siblings reversed. It makes “home” appear as alien as the creature which abducted the child.
Indeed, the idea of “home” being a place of safety and comfort remains a key part of Flight of the Navigator’s dramatic angst. It’s what the boy craves for when he finds himself in the future. In fact, his world is turned upside down as a result of being tasked to bring his brother home from a friend’s house. His mother tells him: “I don’t like him going through the woods alone”, underlining that sense of danger away from the family home.
Later, when the boy is given a room at the NASA research facility, it is filled it with toys, games and TV. But no matter what material things are provided, the boy becomes increasingly frustrated; it isn’t home. Towards the film’s end, the boy finds himself back on earth in familiar surroundings where he sees his aged family and laments: “That is my family, but it’s not my home. My home is back in 1978.”
There’s a familiar sense of caution in Kleiser’s approach to time travel. For example, the alien tells the child outright it’s dangerous, even life-threatening, to try to reverse the clock. More subtly, having an ability to play with time has adverse consequences, even in the unwitting jump forward eight years. Be that the unfamiliarity of a future world or the fact you, as a time traveller, might become a specimen in a scientist’s lab being pricked and probed for answers.
But this is a family-friendly film. Time travel ultimately becomes a way of resetting the equilibrium. It isn’t just about going back in time but about rediscovering mum, dad and baby brother as they should be – happy, healthy and together. Having the ability to time travel gives us the second chances life cannot dish out. In Flight of the Navigator, it’s about finding peace, love and family by getting home.