To Phaelon and back

In the movie Flight of the Navigator, when Max tries to drop David off at his family’s home in South Florida, David decides at the last minute not to go and instead tells Max to “take me with you.” Take me with you actually means take me eight years into the past where you found me. As David tells Max, “That’s my family but that’s not my home.

Max initially abducted David in order to study his “inferior brain” on a faraway planet called Phaelon. Because they traveled to Phaelon at the speed of light, what felt like two hours to David felt like eight years to his family back on Earth.

At first glance, Flight of the Navigator just seems like a fun eighties movie. And it is. Alan Silvestri composed the music and a very young Sarah Jessica Parker co-stars. But the film also manages to be a sophisticated depiction of one of the more timeless and oft-used story types: the hero’s journey.

David is having trouble at home, and he must travel to a strange and fantastical underworld, or in this case overworld, so he can set things right. David is summoned on this quest by Max, an alien from another world. The heroes in these tales rarely have a choice in the matter. Frodo is destined to carry the ring to Mordor; Luke has to leave the farm and take on the dark side. This recalls what Malvolio says in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night about people that have “greatness thrust upon them.” The true heroes are the reluctant ones.

Conflict of some kind, be it familial or otherwise, always seems to be a prerequisite in these stories. There’s something in the real world that can only be fixed with a visit to an alternative reality. What David must fix is his relationship with his little brother. Extraordinarily, his brother is one of the people that helps him negotiate his new reality, and in turn, David learns that Jeffrey isn’t such a weasel. Back to the Future does a similar thing, but Marty McFly travels back (and forward) in time to make his life better, whereas David visits the future only to learn that maybe his life isn’t so bad after all. Perhaps all Marty needed to do was change his perspective. “Hello, McFly. Anybody in there?”

David is returned to the correct time and place by the end of the film. He is a much wiser person and has a new friend in the form of a tiny alien creature. The hero must always bring something back from the underworld as proof of his experience. Sometimes this is a gift but often it’s some kind of physical wound (see Luke’s severed hand).

Nothing so dramatic as losing a hand in a light saber fight happens to David. That’s why I like Flight of the Navigator. It pulls off the hero’s journey with subtlety. In fact, the film is so undramatic that it likely wouldn’t be made today. But I loved it when I was a kid and I still do. David’s story proves that you actually can go home again.

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