Film: Flight of the Navigator


Flight of the Navigator is a 1986 live-action sci-fi film from Walt Disney Pictures and Producers Sales Organization (The Neverending Story, Short Circuitnote ). David Freeman, a 12-year-old boy living in 1978, falls into a ravine after searching for his younger brother, and comes to eight years into the future — everyone has aged but him and he's apparently been gone all that time. An analysis of his brain reveals hidden schematics and star charts, and David later discovers an alien spaceship that was captured by NASA around the same time he was found. Now he must work with its computer program, which he later calls Max, to figure out what happened to him and get back home.

This film provides examples of:

  • '80s Hair: Carolyn's - discussed with reference to the purple streak therein.
    Carolyn: You know something? You're a weird kid!
    David: Me? I'm not the one with the purple hair!
    Carolyn: Oh... yeah...I went to a concert with some friends last night.
  • 90% of Your Brain: Used to store the star charts in David's head as an experiment. Result? "It leaked."
  • Acrophobic Bird: Averted; when David tells the ship to get 20 miles away from the base, it goes straight up!
  • Adult Fear: The film places appropriate emphasis on the parental fear of one's child disappearing without a trace. Of course, no parent would expect their child to turn up eight years later and still be the same age they were when they disappeared.
    • Inverted with David. He comes home and finds his family no longer lives there, and everything has changed. Any kid watching understands immediately why David breaks down crying from the confusion, panic and terror that hits him all at once.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
    • Downplayed with R.A.L.F. the mail delivery robot, whose rudimentary A.I. sometimes malfunctions in harmless ways (according to Carolyn, anyway).
    • Played straight with Max who got himself into the whole mess (crashed into power lines) in the first place because he was gawking at some daisies.
  • Alien Abduction: David was taken to Phaelon for study.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Jeff, until he grows up without David. Now that David's back in his own time, he won't be that much annoying.
  • Artificial Intelligence: Max is a robotic A.I. for an entire spaceship. His race is never seen, so the question of whether they are all living machines who achieved Brain Uploading or evolved as Mechanical Lifeforms is never addressed.
  • Artistic License Physics: When the ship travels 20 miles straight up, David floats up to the ceiling as if in microgravity. In reality, at 20 miles up the Earth's gravity is pretty much just as strong as on the surface (astronauts float because they are falling along with the ship or space station around — it's just that they are traveling sideways fast enough that the Earth curves away beneath them so they never end up hitting the ground).
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Max crashes his ship because he was looking at daisies.
  • Bad Future: For David, anyway. NASA only treating him like a test subject, earlier on, he learns that he was declared Legally Dead.
  • Big Little Brother: Jeff became this for David. The change is extremely awkward — but thought-provoking — to the both of them.
  • Blatant Lies: "Get back Jack, I've got a gun!"
  • Call Back: Before David falls into the ravine, a freight train can be heard approaching. After returning to his own time, David wakes up to the sound of the train passing by.
  • Conspicuous CGI: Notably the ship's shapeshifting animations. It's understandable given that this was 1986, and the ship's reflective effect was state-of-the-art at the time. That said, some of the shapeshifting (like the stairs) was actually stop motion.
  • Cool Starship: And one that looks like a watermelon seed.
  • Darker and Edgier: Somewhat, compared to other Disney movies (live-action or animated). The Freemans are somewhat (but not completely) dysfunctional, and the NASA scientists (at least from David's point of view) only really see him as a test subject, among other things. Oh yeah, and despite the PG rating, there's also at least two instances of PG-13 / R rated swearing (which were thankfully removed from its broadcasts on The Disney Channel).note 
  • The '80s: As if music videosnote  and multiple brands of Coke being the new "in" things which confuse David, or Carolyn's hairdo, wasn't enough to remind viewers exactly which decade David finds himself in, we also have the synthesized soundtrack which practically oozes '80s.
  • Exact Words: David told Max to take the ship twenty miles away from the NASA base. He never specified a direction...
  • Extreme Omnivore: One of the aliens on the ship eats David's hat, and might have eaten his head.
    Max: Don't get too close to them, David. They're hungry.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: 560 light years in 2.2 (solar) hours, also used to explain why David hasn't aged.
  • Fish Out of Temporal Water: Although it's only been eight years, David has difficulties adjusting to music clips and five brands of Coke.
  • For Science!: Max's race were so intrigued by the unused mental capacity of humans that they decided to cram all their star charts into David's brain, just to see what would happen.
  • Fun with Acronyms: RALF: "Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator."
  • Genre Savvy: when David is being observed by scientists via a one-way mirror he angrily makes clear that he knows perfectly well what that mirror is there for, because he watches TV.
  • The Government: The staff of the NASA facility decide to keep David virtually imprisoned indefinitely without regard for the consequences when they realize how much alien data is contained in David's brain.
  • Hearing Voices: David hears the voice of Max calling him to the ship.
  • Hey, It's That Voice!: The spaceship's AI is voiced by one Paul Reubens, more widely known by the name of his famous character "Pee Wee Herman".note 
  • Hyper Space Is A Scary Place: In this case, traveling backwards in time is not a pleasant experience at all.
  • Identity Absorption: Max got a little more data than he bargained for when he scanned David's mind for the star charts.
  • Japanese Tourist: David and Max encounter some of these when Max accidentally takes the ship to Tokyo instead of Fort Lauderdale.
  • Last of His Kind: Puckmaren, who doesn't know that he can't go home because his planet was destroyed by a comet after he was taken.
  • Machine Monotone: The previously mentioned mail delivery robot R.A.L.F..
    R.A.L.F.: "Pardon me, coming through."
  • The Navigator: And this is his flight.
  • Never Grew Up: Not by choice, but David experiences firsthand the consequences of travelling close to the speed of light.
  • Older and Wiser: David's brother Jeff grew up to be a pretty cool teenager. On a lesser note, the family dog "Bruiser" may have taken eight years, but he grew from an oblivious puppy who couldn't follow commands to save his life into a competent frisbee-catching dog.
  • Popular History: If we are to believe the filmmakers, The Bee Gees were the only pop group in 1978 that preteens wanted to go see. (So up yours, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Eagles, Aerosmith, Foreigner, Styx, and Van Halen!) What makes it really ludicrous is that the Bee Gees are equated with Twisted Sister.
  • Puny Earthling: See Time Travel below.
  • Rip Van Winkle: David loses consciousness for "a second" and wakes up 8 years later. Once the science is explained, this situation doesn't quite fit the trope, but from David's point of view that's what happened.
  • Robo Speak: Max before getting his data back, as exemplified in the second page quote.
  • Sapient Ship: The Trimaxion Drone Ship.
  • Secret Keeper: David's brother knows he's got a small alien creature.
  • Shiny-Looking Spaceships: The Trimaxion Drone Ship is polished silver, inside and out.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "He just said he wanted to phone home..."
    • One of the alien critters on board the ship comes from the "Pixar Elliptic." (Pixar was founded the year the film was released.)
    • After absorbing some of the information in David's head, Max briefly starts talking like Scotty
    • "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!"
    • The little girl at the gator farm is wearing an EPCOT Center tee-shirt.
  • Spheroid Dropship: Not quite, but the ship's original form is roughly spherical.
  • Spock Speak: Max originally speaks like this.
  • Starfish Language: David's brain has been filled with data in a totally alien language that would take years to decipher, according to the NASA men.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The Trimaxion (or Phaelonian?) race has perfected the ability to travel at any speed and travel anywhere at any point in time they wish.
  • Time Dilation: The reason why David goes from 1978 to 1986 without aging a day.
  • Time Travel: Max would normally take his specimens back in time to when they were abducted, but has reluctance at taking David, fearing it would vaporize him since his body is "too fragile".
  • Totally Radical: Max speaks like this after downloading the info from David's brain.
  • Troubled Production: The (for the time) cutting edge CGI work was done using the Super Foonly, a completely unique one-of-a-kind supercomputer based on the PDP-10 mainframe and which had previously been used for some of the CG in Tron. This machine was by the standards of the day rather powerful, but it barely had enough memory for the animation frame currently being rendered and the one being printed to film. A 30 second animation sequence would take a full 10 days of computation and printing to complete. The Foonly was also an extremely balky prototype that suffered continuous technical problems and glitches. The most severe of these was when the system's RAID array suffered a head crash in the middle of one of those 10 day rendering runs, completely destroying the drives (and these were huge things that resembled a top-loading washing machine!). All data was lost, the drive heads were toast and it happened on a holiday weekend so there were no service technicians available to replace them. Once the drives were functional again, the software stack had to be reinstalled from scratch, which itself was a pretty fraught operation given that the system was effectively a pre-production prototype, and had to be done from tape and took days to complete. Then the lost rendering run had to be restarted. The system's custodian had the following to say about this:
    I remember about a three day period when I would drive home and try to sleep for a few hours only to drive back and try to get running again. The really awful thing was that I kept seeing big billboard signs on the way in advertising Flight of the Navigator, saying "coming next week!". "We hope!" I would mutter to myself.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Past: 1978, as the movie was made in 1986.
  • Wham Line:
    Jeff: "You think it's easy for me to believe you're David? You should be 20 years old by now!"
  • What Year Is This?: Inverted. David, who's unaware he's traveled 8 years into the future, is asked this by the police.

"See ya later, Navigator! Ha ha!"

Alternative Title(s):

Flight Of The Navigator