Flight of the Navigator is a 1986 Disney science fiction-comedy film directed by Randal Kleiser and written by Mark H. Baker and Michael Burton, about a 12-year-old boy who is abducted by an alien spaceship and finds himself caught in a world which has changed around him. It was mostly shot in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, Florida.
David Freeman is an average 12-year-old American boy living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1978. On the night of July 4, his mother, Helen, asks him to collect his younger brother, Jeff, from a friend's house on the other side of the woods. While walking through the woods, David falls down an embankment into a ravine and is knocked unconscious. He awakes after what seems like a few moments, and walks home only to find that everything around him has changed because it is suddenly 1986. The police take him to a house where he is reunited with his family, now aged by eight years. The shock of it all causes him to pass out.
Meanwhile, an extraterrestrial spaceship has crashed into some power lines. NASA agents convince the police that it is theirs and takes it to their base, intending to study it, but find it seamless and impenetrable. In the meantime, David is taken to the hospital for a medical examination and to discover why he hasn't aged. The doctors begin performing tests on his brain and find it containing accurate information pertinent to the ship that is at the NASA base; alerted to this fact, their operative, Dr. Louis Faraday, requests him to be taken to their facility (the same place where the ship is kept) to unravel the truth behind this. Further scans reveal that his brain contains alien data and star charts leading to a planet named Phaelon, 560 light years from Earth. The concept of time dilation due to faster-than-light speed travel is used to explain how he may have been in space for only 4.4 hours, while eight years passed on Earth.
David befriends an intern named Carolyn McAdams and tells her to let his parents know that the institute plans to keep him longer than the promised 48 hours. The next morning, he hears a voice calling to him telepathically. He escapes from his room by hiding in R.A.L.F., a service robot, and is taken to the hangar where the ship is stored. Once inside it, he meets its robotic pilot, an artificial intelligence calling itself a Trimaxian Drone Ship from Phaelon, whom he subsequently nicknames Max. Referring to him as "Navigator", Max accepts his command to escape the base.
The ship takes off from the NASA facility and subsequently hides on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Max informs David that his mission was to travel the galaxy, collect biological specimens, and take them back to Phaelon for analysis before returning them to the place and time from which they were taken. His sensors had discovered that humans only use 10% of their brain and as an experiment, David's was filled with miscellaneous information, including star charts. Max then returned him to Earth, but didn't take him back to his proper time, fearing that humans were too delicate to survive time travel. When trying to leave there and return home, Max accidentally crashed the ship into the power lines, erasing all the star charts and data necessary to return home from its computer. He therefore needs the information placed in David's brain to complete his mission and return home.
Max prepares to perform an encephalic scan on David, during which he shows him the remaining alien specimens he has yet to return to their homes. David bonds with a Puckmaren, a small and harmless alien species and the last of his kind, since his home planet, Binpuka Minor, was destroyed by a comet. After a while, Max performs the scan, but in the process also contracts the ability to feel and express emotions, making him more human-like in behavior, but also more erratic, stubborn, and argumentative.
David and Max start bickering as to their next course of action, to which Max's response is to shut down and allow the ship to fall from its orbit, taunting David to execute his title as navigator for real. He manages to activate the manual controls and takes over. They travel the Earth trying to decide what to do next, being tracked and chased by NASA all the way. In the meantime, Carolyn has made contact with the Freemans and told them about his departure in the ship; as a result, Dr. Faraday puts them under house arrest.
To find the way home, David uses a gas station pay phone, calls home, and gets Jeff, asking him to send a signal so that he can find their new house. He successfully signals the ship by lighting David's old bottle rockets and other fireworks. He is initially thrilled that he will soon return home, but becomes despondent upon realizing that he has lost eight years of time with his family. Upon arriving home and seeing the NASA people waiting for him, he decides that he does not belong in 1986, bids his family goodbye, and tells Max to return him to his own time, regardless of the risks.
Max reluctantly travels back in time with David and successfully returns him unharmed and at the same moment he left. He makes his way home and finds everything the way he left it before he disappeared. He and his family take off in their boat to see the fireworks and he makes up with Jeff. He discovers that he has retained one memento from his experience: the Puckmaren, who stowed away in his backpack. The only other one to know of this is Jeff who agrees to keep it a secret. The film ends with Max flying home amidst the fireworks, shouting "See you later, Navigator" to David.
Joey Cramer as David Freeman
Cliff DeYoung as Bill Freeman
Albie Whitaker as Jeff Freeman, 8 years
Matt Adler as Jeff Freeman, 16 years
Howard Hesseman as Dr. Louis Faraday
Robert Small as Troy
Jonathan Sanger as Dr. Carr
Richard Liberty as Larry Howard
Iris Acker as Janet Howard
Raymond Forchion as Detective Banks
Brittney Vance as Female Officer
Steve Ramos as Night Guard Brayton
Visual effects innovations
Released at the dawn of 3D animation technology, the film was the world's first 35 mm feature one to use environment mapping, creating the illusion of a chrome object occupying a live-action frame, considered by many to hold up to today's standards. The CG shots were produced by Omnibus Graphics, one of the first computer animation companies, responsible for most of the classic advertising 3D animation of the '80s.
CGI was not used to depict the suspended steps leading into the ship. The effect of the door liquefying to form them was achieved through stop-motion animation by creating a series of metallic sculptures for every frame of the animation. They appeared to support David's weight with a simple optical illusion. They were mounted on thin beams which were angled in such a way that they themselves hid the beams from the camera's lens. This arrangement even allowed for slight camera movement as can be seen the first time he climbs them. Also note that when he presses on the middle one, they all move slightly.
The two full-scale spaceship hulls used in most of the shots throughout the film (one with an open entrance, the other sealed) were constructed out of thin, curved sheets of wood over a metal framework and finished with primer and reflective paint. One of the hulls underwent refurbishment and is currently used as the Cool Ship in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The other hull can today be seen on the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
The music score for the film was composed by Alan Silvestri. It is distinct from his other scores in beng entirely electronically generated, using the Synclavier, one of the first digital synthesisers and samplers.
Theme from "Flight of the Navigator"
"The Ship Beckons"
"David in the Woods"
"Transporting the Ship"
"Have to Help a Friend"
"The Shadow Universe"
- Puppeteers Tim Blaney and Tony Urbano also worked as puppeteers for Tri-Star's Short Circuit, which came out two months before Flight of the Navigator.
Colin Trevorrow is set to direct a remake of the film.