clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'Flight of the Navigator' is a horror film about the terror of time dilation and missing children

New, 51 comments

One of the better aspects of being a parent is the ability to revisit pop culture from your childhood with fresh eyes.

My children and I have watched everything from The Princess Bride to The Dark Crystal together, and as an adult I always see things i missed as a child. Then we watched Flight of the Navigator, which is basically a horror movie if you're a parent.

Allow me to explain.

The horrors of alien abduction

David is a 12 year-old kid who seems like any normal child. He's an American every-kid, and the opening scenes involve him trying to teach his dog how to catch a Frisbee, thinking about girls, and arguing with his younger brother Jeff. Then one night he goes out into the woods, falls into a ravine and later wakes up a little worse for wear. No big deal, right?

There's only one problem: There's a weird family in his home. The scene of David trying to figure out what's going on is heartbreaking. "Please," he asks. "Where's my mom and dad?"

That one problem balloons into a nightmarish scenario. He wasn't gone overnight, he has actually been missing for eight years. The police say he was declared legally dead. His parents are older. His younger brother is now his older brother. He's been gone for nearly a decade, and his family now has to deal with the fact a son they thought was dead is back in their lives, looking and acting as if no time at all had passed.

Think about what the past eight years had been like for them. Their kid disappears. They look everywhere, but there's no evidence of anything one way or the other.

A crazy story about aliens is actually a suburban tragedy.

"They made me put [posters] up on every telephone pole and tree for years," Jeff says. "You should've seen Mom, she kept all the stuff in your room, she refused to believe that you were dead." The two boys exchange a few token insults, the same exchange we saw at the beginning of the movie.

"I'm scared," David finally says, and who wouldn't be? This is before he's taken away by the government, mind you.

One heart breaking scene during the opening half of the movie shows that Jeff had taught the dog how to catch a flying disc.

Think about the tragedy of that scene for a minute. That's what David was doing when he disappeared. The brother knew that act was important to his missing sibling, and he made sure the dog learned. It's a tiny bit of character motivation, and you'll miss it if you blink, but it helped show how the brother dealt with the tragedy of what had happened.

The film goes on to explain that he was taken by an alien intelligence and flown to another planet at near-light speeds, which caused time slow down inside the ship while it continued normally for everyone else.

This is referred to as time dilation, which is a well-known trope in science fiction, but Flight of the Navigator is one of the few films that deals with it practically. It's one of the most clever parts of the screenplay; the idea that physics, not anal probes, is one of the scariest aspects of alien abduction. It turns a crazy story about aliens and children into a suburban tragedy.

Most people remember the ship, or the fuzzy little alien, or the jokes about "leaking" as the alien tries to understand urination. But as a parent I get stuck on the first half of the film, and the horrible subtext of everything that's going on.

Children's movies from 80s were dark, we just didn't see it at the time.