Released in 1986, Flight of the Navigator is among the most entertaining, family-friendly fantasy movies ever made, bearing reasonable comparison with The NeverEnding Story, The Explorers, and even E.T. It starred the then thirteen-year-old Joey Cramer as David Scott Freeman, a boy who went missing in the woods, only to re-appear eight years later without having aged a day. Where had David been? He was abducted by a sentient, shape-shifting alien spaceship called Max, voiced by Paul Reubens, which returns to retrieve valuable data that it left in David’s brain and in doing so helps him escape from a NASA testing facility. The two then become friends and go on a wonderful adventure.
Many of Flight of the Navigator’s fans (this writer included) have wondered what became of Joey Cramer, whose vulnerable, sensitive and beautifully naturalistic performance proved one of the most memorable aspects of the film. He took on a handful of roles following FOTN but then disappeared entirely from view. Up until recently he had no social media presence, nor apparently had he ever; internet message boards asked where he was but yielded no clear answer, aside from a picture taken by a fan who discovered him working in a sporting goods store. Then stories of forged checks were reported in the media, and finally he attempted to rob a bank. So, what happened?
Lisa Downs’ excellent documentary, Life After the Navigator (which can be pre-ordered here), sets up this mystery from the outset, and over the course of ninety minutes explores Joey’s strange, hippie-infused childhood, his extremely promising career as a child star, his descent into drug-use and criminality, and finally, thankfully, his successful rehabilitation. For fans of Flight of the Navigator, all of this is rather startling as one is shown photographs and video footage of Joey in his adolescence and young adulthood. This creates almost a sense of mental whiplash as Joey’s life beyond his childhood film career, which had been entirely obscured from view up to this moment, is suddenly revealed. More startling however is the openness with which Joey is prepared to speak about his troubled past, which is deserving of a great deal of respect. He tells his story with a gentleness, humility and hopefulness that is heart-breaking and uplifting all at once. He even goes so far as to share his own musical compositions, quietly strumming on his guitar and singing in a way that is so sweetly honest that it eschews any mawkishness. One can only be impressed by the restraint and understanding that director Lisa Downs has shown in allowing Joey to tell his own story, in his own way, without any apparent pressure.
The appeal of the documentary is two-fold, however, as Downs explores, in detail, the making of Flight of the Navigator and gains fascinating insights from director Randal Kleiser, the stars, including Veronica Cartwright, Cliff De Young and Howard Hesseman, as well as the design, special effects and puppeteering teams who created the ground-breaking and influential spaceship effects. These segments of the documentary are also cleverly used as a long lead-in to a Flight of the Navigator reunion which is teased at the film’s opening and pays off charmingly later. As such, Life After the Navigator delivers as both a satisfyingly in-depth making of documentary that will keep movie geeks happy, and as a deeply moving human story.
It is tempting to frame Joey Cramer’s story as a tragic one – just another tale of a child star who’s gone off the rails and ruined their career and their life. But that would be to miss the point. In this author’s opinion, it appears that the message of the film, if the story of a person’s life can be boiled down so simply, is that what happened to Joey could happen to anybody – even a much sought after child star with a promising future – and more importantly, that no matter how bleak things become there’s always the possibility of finding your way back, of reclaiming your soul, and of becoming the person you were always meant to be.
Life After the Navigator is a delicately constructed documentary that handles its subject matter with sensitivity and kindness, and is essential viewing for any ‘80s kid who grew up watching Flight of the Navigator.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
Life After the Navigator is available for pre-order on Blu-Ray here, and is available to buy/rent on Amazon from December 9th 2020 and will be available on Amazon Prime from February 1st 2021 (regional variances may apply).