To linger within walls undetected requires a dedication to stillness and silence. One must avoid growing dependent on the manic activity of the Outer World to hide movement within those thin confines. As much as I came to loathe the ammonia stink of cat piss, the unpredictable scampering of the creatures had provided a relieving camouflage to my activities which I now feared had relaxed my self-awareness.
The house was now devoid of cats as the ramping up towards human procreation was taking place. Cat shit has parasites that can mess with a fetus, as Gary explained. True, but chances are he had agreed to father a child simply to justify getting rid of the beasts. Despite a dubious beginning to its life, the child would most likely be unremarkable. Very few biographies of humanity’s monsters include the footnote that their birth was made possible by an argument over animal hoarding.
With the cats gone, it was decided that a fresh coat of paint would help the healing process. An unnatural powdery blue abomination was slathered over the walls, and Gary flipped on the television to cut through the lack of conversation. The timing was perfect as the movie Flight of the Navigator began to play. The dated 80’s crap-pop opening faded away, and I found myself suddenly remembering the first time I had seen the film.
My dad started me out bootlegging movies in theaters when I was about nine years old. Armed with a clunky camcorder, I would crouch in the highest recesses of the balcony and perfectly frame the screen while running two separate microphones attached to extended cables all the way next to the speakers on the walls. I took the importance of the work to heart, and the income it provided kept my ol’ man from having his thumbs broken on a weekly basis. I knew what “gambler” meant at the time, but it took a few years for me to grasp the meaning of “degenerate”.
I had attempted to record Flight of the Navigator a week after it was released in the summer of 1986. It was my second year in the bootlegging game, and I was floating in a haze of unforgettable movies like Goonies and Back to the Future which had turned a decent profit the previous year. Those profits were quickly gambled away on a horse that the ol’ man swears looked just like his dead brother Otis. But the loss was sustained without any breaking of appendages, and that Christmas was merry indeed.
As my memories of Flight of the Navigator returned, I was reminded how dark the first act is. We meet David, the young hero played with a grating wide-eyed innocence by Joey Cramer. It felt strange how in this new viewing the boy made me want to stab myself in the abdomen with rusty garden shears, but seeing it as a youth he was a character that drew me into the story. I wanted to be boring and normal like him.
The film quickly takes a nightmarish turn for parent and child alike. Knocked unconscious after falling while walking in the woods, David wakes up eight years later and hasn’t aged a day. The scene of revelation, as he is returned to his parents who believed him to be long dead at this point, is even more disturbing as I watch it through adult eyes. The wonder of time travel gave way to the horror of being where you don’t belong with people who had written you off as dead and now view you as a curiosity. As a child, I identified with this character in ways I couldn’t comprehend. Where I first wanted to be like him, he was now becoming like me.
Gary and Penelope’s attention was drawn to the film. They both seemed to remember it, groaning nearly imperceptible “oh yeah’s” as we first see the alien craft responsible for David’s disappearance. Howard Hesseman is introduced as a nasally NASA scientist named Faraday who is called in when the ship is discovered. His first priority is, naturally, to keep it a secret. Somehow, scientists wanting to closely study alien technology that can plunge humanity into an Event Horizon horrorscape before a press release is put out gets a sinister spin in most fiction.
After David is reunited with his family, the story continues down an ever darkening path, with him learning the terror his family has endured for the past eight years. His younger brother is now older than him. Doctors and scientists want to study him. And he’s tormented by cries for help in his mind from some unknown source. When he’s hooked up to monitors and studied, the shape of the alien craft appears on the screen, bringing the attention of Dr. Faraday.
I suppose the film could be considered “light hearted” since David wasn’t promptly strapped to an examination table and buzz-sawed open when he reappeared unchanged after so much time. Instead, he was given Sarah Jessica Parker to play with. Here she plays a NASA intern who introduces a rolling robotic room service cart. The robo-cart is the first sign that the original writers were shown the door and coked-up Disney staff writers were brought in to cute this thing up a notch.
David is drawn like Renfield to the floating metal spacecraft that has shattered his and his family’s lives and scrambled his mind. After using the stupid robot cart to escape, he finds the craft in a nearby hangar. He approaches it, mesmerized and…
…At this point, I recall being discovered by an usher. As David and the ship he commandeered escape the NASA facility, I found myself in a mad dash through the theater, lugging my video camera through aisles and hopping over the scant few audience members. All eyes were on me as I knocked over popcorn and kicked over sodas with Minimum-Wage-in-a-Vest giving chase close behind me. I made it to the exit and burst through the door, lighting up the small crowd for a second before I disappeared into the white.
I realized that I had never seen the second half of the film, and the memories I had of it were restricted to the creepy, "Twilight Zone" sci-fi tale which had been unfolding. It seemed like a story of dread, loss, and acceptance aimed at a boy my age at the time without pulling any punches or watering it down. It spoke to my sense of burgeoning independence while touching on themes of lost youth and isolation. And now, seeing the second half, it all kind of went to hell. As Gary and Penelope sunk into the comfort of the film, I found my patience wearing thin.
Aboard the space craft, David strikes up a rapport with the awful metal demon that tore him from his family eight years prior and dubs the creature “Max”. Max is voiced by Paul Reubens, also known as Pee Wee Herman, but in this film credited as “Paul Mall”. While Dr. Faraday is supposed to be the principal antagonist, I realized that it is Max who is the real bad guy. Faraday is simply driven to understand the greatest discovery in human history, involving aliens and time travel. But Max kidnaps children for experiments and then returns them years later to traumatize everyone in their lives.
At first, Max is introduced as an unthinking murder machine, carrying out commands without regard for person or property. David tells him to take them twenty miles away and Max flies the ship exactly twenty miles straight up. Had David asked Max to “get those NASA guys out of the way”, they would no doubt have been liquefied with some blue electric death ray before David could unconvincingly whine “what’d you go and do that for?”
Max is not entirely at fault. It seems that he had his circuits fried when, despite being able to traverse the cosmos, he crashed into some power lines. Luckily, he had used David’s brain to store all of his data, forming the psychic link which haunted David with telepathic cries of enslaved agony. So at the very least, Max is just a dangerous dumbfuck of an intergalactic child abductor.
Gary and Penelope couldn’t help but laugh as the second act crumbled before my eyes. Not the laughter of someone’s sense of humor engaging, but a knowing laughter that was bringing them back to a time when this type of childish blather was entertaining. The laugh of nostalgia. The laugh that said “you had to be there”.
After my close encounter with the usher, I had shied away from my bootlegging duties for a while. My dad lost a pinkie over the ordeal, but as he put it, I had “nine more fuck ups to go”. Somehow, the memory of his stump-bandaged hand passing me an ice cream cone, which was his way of saying “you disappointed me but I’ll still feed you”, is preferable to the conclusion of the film. I can only imagine what kind of sugary sweet dreck I would have been desensitized to had I not been caught that day.
The movie ended predictably, but with further implications. It’s a slight spoiler that David is returned to his own time, as if nothing happened. But what about his family in this alternate timeline? They have to suffer the sudden disappearance of their child once again? And what of the alien specimen that David takes from the ship? It now must suffer the same fate from which David had just been rescued! David has breached the laws of space and time so that he can have a pet Muppet that most likely carries a pathogen that will wipe out humanity.
My frustration simmered within while Gary and Penelope resumed their painting of the room, their conversation drifting to happier times.
“Remember when we saw that in the theater?” Gary laughed.
“Oh yeah,” Penelope giggled playfully, “and the usher chased that kid around? That was nuts.”
“I wonder what happened to that kid.”
Illustration courtesy of the author