The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

2018 #162
Vincent Ward | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Australia & New Zealand / English | 12* / PG

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

1348: the Black Death is sweeping across Europe. A remote mining village in Cumbria is yet to be afflicted, but they fear the disease is close at hand. When young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) reveals he’s been having visions of a quest to a great cathedral, they decide this is their best hope for salvation: a band of brave men will follow Griffin’s vision and make an offering to God so he will protect the village. The journey begins by travelling down a pit so deep it’s rumoured to lead to the other side of the world. As they emerge, they’ve unwittingly travelled not only across the world, but also forward in time some 640 years, to New Zealand, 1988.

If that sounds like an adventure movie but also a bit, well, weird, then you’ve probably got a handle on The Navigator already. It’s a men-on-a-mission time travel adventure quest filtered through an arthouse sensibility — writer-director Vincent Ward trained at a school of fine art, intending to become a sculptor and painter, before getting sidetracked into moviemaking; and he’d previously helmed the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at Cannes, Vigil. (I didn’t realise until after viewing that he’d gone on to direct What Dreams May Come and also did a lot of development on Alien³ (the “wooden planet populated by monks” version), but once you know that, the aesthetic similarities seem obvious.) The Navigator has thus been likened to the work of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, but also Terry Gilliam.

So, on the one hand, it can play as a straightforward heroic quest, but the sometimes slow pace and occasional presence of symbolism suggest, on the other, a film with greater depths. Primarily, I think, this is the way the villagers’ fear of the plague is reflected by our modern-day fears — or, as the film’s press book rather nicely puts it, in the present day the adventurers are “surrounded by echoes of the fear which haunted medieval England”. So, for example, their journey is disrupted by the rise of a monolithic submarine, presumably a nuclear one; the issue of nuclear deterrence is also brought up on a TV broadcast; and that’s followed by a famous Australian AIDS commercial, perhaps the most obvious mirror of the plague there could be for an ’80s movie.

Plagued by the, er, plague

It’s also a somewhat spiritual film, though not in a heavy-handed, pro-religion kind of way. After all, the men are on a quest to seek protection from God, and the climax revolves around placing a spire atop a church. Naturally, the reliance of medieval folk on their belief in God is counterposed with the modern world’s disregard for such values — though, again, the comparison isn’t made in too forceful a manner. For example, when they first arrive in the present they look out over the city to find the cathedral, because a church is always the tallest building, but, to their confusion, they can’t see it because of all the skyscrapers. The point is subtly put: we worship different gods today.

But aside from all these nods to philosophising, the film does work as an adventure movie, with certain sequences relying on the gang overcoming obstacles rather than musing on the state of the world. Standout set pieces include crossing a four-lane motorway (it was Ward trying to do exactly that in Germany that first gave him the idea for the film!), and the climax atop the church, which — between John Scott’s superb editing and Griffin’s premonition that one of them will die there — is as suspenseful a finale as you could ask for. Scott’s editing also shines in the sequences depicting Griffin’s visions, which become cleverly sprinkled in so that at times you’re wrong-footed about whether what you’re seeing is happening or another premonition. Although the film never chooses to play this for a big twist, it keeps things dynamic.

The real star from the crew, however, is probably cinematographer Geoff Simpson. The entire movie is gorgeously shot in a couple of styles: the medieval stuff is presented in high-contrast black & white, which combines with the snowbound setting to create a stark, gritty beauty; then the present day stuff is in colour, mostly lit in rich oranges and blues so that it feels almost opulent, with the choice of colours drawing inspiration from medieval art. Ward’s reasoning for this delineation was to emphasise how striking the modern world would feel to someone coming from the grimness of the plague years, and it works. A word too for composer Davood A. Tabrizi, an Iranian émigré here charged with writing Celtic-esque music. Inspiration was taken from genuine ethnic music that was specially researched in Britain, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia, and the score was performed entirely with traditional instruments. The resulting folksy sound is wholly fitting and very atmospheric.

Steeple chase

The film doesn’t devote much time to fleshing out the characters of its band of heroes, but they’re succinctly delineated nonetheless. Standouts include Bruce Lyons as Connor, Griffin’s admired older brother, an experienced adventurer, but that also leaves him prone to thinking he knows best; and Marshall Napier as Searle, a likeable but pragmatic and sceptical man, with a tragic backstory. Young Hamish McFarlane also acquits himself well as Griffin, a young lad whose unexplained gift leaves him with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but a determination to live up to what’s needed of him. (Incidentally, although he did act a couple more times, during filming of The Navigator McFarlane apparently became fascinated by the process of filmmaking, and he’s gone on to have a career behind the scenes — his most recent credits as first AD include episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, Supergirl, and forthcoming giant shark movie The Meg).

All of the above mixes together to create a film that both has familiar elements, but also feels strangely unique. It’s at once a straightforward heroic quest, with sequences of adventure, tension, and humour, and also a thoughtful, spiritual, philosophical musing on communal fears, how we deal with them, and how they resurface. Or, you know, something. It’s a marvellously idiosyncratic film in that regard, and while I wouldn’t say I loved it, it’s an experience I’d definitely take again.

4 out of 5

The Navigator is released on Blu-ray this week by Arrow Video in both the UK and US.

* It used to be rated PG in the UK too, until Arrow had it reclassified for the Blu-ray. The higher certificate is due to a man stuck on a speeding train, a boy climbing a church spire, and the “unsettling” psychic visions. Frankly, it strikes me as needlessly excessive — the PG was fine. ^

What Dreams May Come (1998)

2015 #129
Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13

When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)

Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.

Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.

However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.

Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.

3 out of 5