My Misspent Youth In Films...
Flight Of The Navigator
Directed by: Randal Kleiser
Starring: Joey Cramer, Paul Reubens, Cliff De Young
Released: August 1, 1986
Directed by: Nelson Shin
Starring: Orson Welles, Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy
Released: August 8, 1986
The Autobots must stop a colossal planet consuming robot who goes after the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. At the same time, they must defend themselves against an all-out attack from the Decepticons.
What I Thought Then
These were two of my absolute favorite childhood movies that I watched again and again and they came out a week apart! Flight Of The Navigator was dark and just a little bit scary, but ultimately a lot of fun. The Transformers: The Movie was one of the most talked about films of my elementary school playground. It was a cartoon--that had a dirty word in it! As well as non-dirty quotable lines, like "Me Grimlock kick butt!" or "Me Grimlock need new strategy."
What I Think Now
The opening shot of Flight Of The Navigator is a silver saucer slowly descending while eerie music plays... and then it turns out to be a Frisbee being thrown to a dog. And that's pretty much the movie in toto. The first half of the movie is a broody, atmospheric, science fiction intrigue story about a boy named David who disappears one night and reappears eight years later having not aged a day. His disappearance seems to be connected to a mysterious flying saucer. Both David and the spaceship (which we eventually learn is named Max) are being held at NASA. Max needs the data in David's head to reset his navigation systems after crash-landing on Earth. David needs Max to get him back home--back home in the past if at all possible. Whacky hijinks ensue.
The first half of this movie is excellent. It takes its premise very seriously; David's disappearance and return are never treated as a joke. He and his then-younger-now-older brother commiserate over how weird their relationship has gotten and how much of a toll David's loss took on the family. David genuinely has trouble adjusting to how much the world has changed in eight years (in his defense, the 80s were a bizarre decade). Even the random people at NASA trying to either help or subdue him are played with earnestness and pathos, including a lead scientist played by Howard Hesseman (best known as Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP In Cincinnati, and who would debut as the star of Head Of The Class a month after this film's release), and an assistant played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker. Which means we've officially reached the stage of this journey where I'll be saying "Oh, hey, so-and-so is in this!" a lot.
But at the midpoint, when David and Max unite and solve most of the mystery, the movie takes a hard left turn and becomes a buddy comedy road movie as the two try to dodge the authorities on their way across country back to David's home. It's a jarring shift that includes a sing-a-long to The Beach Boys I Get Around with a tiny dancing alien, jokes about post-punk and new romantics fans, and the voice of Pee-wee Herman. Literally. Paul Ruebens voiced Max as a curt and slightly menacing robotic presence for the first half, but in the second half he was just doing his Pee-wee shtick, but as a computer. It... has not aged well. But with the benefit of hindsight I can see how it was wish-fulfillment catnip to a young nerd like myself. Just imagine if you had your very own spaceship that needed you and could go really fast and change its shape and there was an adorable little alien you could keep for your very own! For me as a kid, I put up with the dry and scary first half to get the unbridled fun of the second half. Now, my reaction is completely opposite. Go figure. Also, I want to point out that this movie has a title that sounds excellent but doesn't so much... mean anything.
And speaking of slightly awkward titles...
The Transformers: The Movie opens on a shot of an immense craft traveling through space while eerie music plays... we then cut to a planet of robots, including robotic children for some reason, and over the course of two and a half minutes, the entire planet--robot children and all--is completely obliterated and all of its inhabitants killed by that mysterious spacecraft. And that's pretty much the movie in toto. It's a shocking tragedy dressed up as a children's story and they get away with it because almost all of the characters are robots. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't love every damn minute of it.
This was supposed to be a cynical cash grab. The mandate from Hasbro was that the filmmakers could do whatever they wanted as long as they killed off the original cast so the TV show could feature the new product line. They didn't think this would be particularly disturbing to children because none of the heroes are human. Sure, kids have attachments to those old robots, but they'll form attachments to these new ones as well. What they perhaps didn't count on was director Nelson Shin turning the death of Optimus Prime into a lengthy set-piece wherein the beloved mechanical father figure turns ashen in front of our eyes, surrounded by mourners with his chest cavity sitting open and the audience surrogate, a human boy named Daniel, bawling over the corpse.
I don't think I can truly convey enough how brutal this film is. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Set in the distant future of 2005, this is the story of a new generation of Autobots attempting to rally from a series of defeats. They've completely lost Cybertron to the Decepticons but are gearing up for a big push to take it back, only to be ambushed by the Decepticons on Earth. They manage a Pyrrhic victory, but they lose their base of operations and basically every character created before 1985 gets murdered. This would be bad enough, but to make matters even worse, the giant planet-eating planet from the opening has taken an interest in them as well. The planet--named Unicron and voiced by Orson Welles in his final role--revitalizes the beaten Decepticons and gives them new bodies so they can renew the attack, including a new leader, Galvatron, voiced by Leonard Nimoy. (Oh, hey, Leonard Nimoy is in this!) The younger generation of Autobots, led by a hot rod named... er... Hot Rod... spends the rest of the movie fleeing from the threat of their ancient enemies and also the existential threat of Unicron.
And it's glorious. Instead of a cynical cash-grab film, the filmmakers decided to try to tell a good story, one that's essentially a war movie where the general dies in Act I and the survivors have to grow into leadership roles while under constant mortal threat. That's a compelling premise, and it's bolstered by some fantastic writing and memorable dialog. There Springer's highly quotable line "I've got better things to do tonight than die" to the old-timer Kup's constant remembrances of war stories. When he brings up a relevant incident and is asked how they'd managed to win, his response is "I'm trying to remember; there were an awful lot of casualties that day." *Chef's kiss* Of course, the whole running gag of everything reminding Kup of something else is a set up to the final confrontation with Unicron so he can say "Nope, I've never see anything like this before." And, because the new toys are more alien-looking than the original toy line, the movie uses the opportunity to get extra science-fiction-y. They travel from planet to planet and encounter bizarre robot fish and an entire planet of junk populated by robots voiced by Eric Idle. (Oh, hey, Eric Idle is in this!) And then they have their final showdown with Unicron in an attempt to save Cybertron from being eaten while also overthrowing the Decepticons and pluck victory from the clutches of despair.
I love this movie so much. I love it from its synth-metal soundtrack to its occasionally silly moments to the utter destruction of everything I held dear as a six-year-old. There's a murderer's row of talent behind the scenes here. There's the original television show voice cast, including icons like Scatman Crothers and Casey Kasem alongside voice-acting legends like Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, and Christopher Collins. For newcomers, in addition to Nimoy, Idle, and Welles, you've got 80s mainstays like Judd Nelson (Bender from The Breakfast Club), Robert Stack (host of Unsolved Mysteries), and John Moschitta, Jr., (the MicroMachine man) lending their talents. And even the less-famous people working on this film brought a lot to it. Nelson Shin was an animator who had only directed two TV movies before being tapped for this, but you've seen his work in the original Star Wars, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and the much-lauded 1992 X-Men series. Vince DiCola is not a particularly well-known composer, but his work here is absolutely perfect. In many ways, this film is a happy accident that should never have worked. Instead, it taught a generation of six-year-olds about the brutality of war and the loss of surrogate fathers, and it did so with words like "shit" and "dammit". And it got away with it because robots.
I can enjoy Flight Of The Navigator for about half of its runtime, before it descends into cheese, but I can't say that I recommend it. The Transformers: The Movie, however, is one that I still regularly go back to as an adult. If that weren't obvious.