Cumbria in the mid-fourteenth century and the Black Plague is abroad in the land, laying waste to countless villages and towns across Europe as the death toll rises ever higher with no apparent end in sight. The denizens of this hamlet are awaiting the return of their hero, Connor (Bruce Lyons), who has been away for some time to scout the surrounding areas and bring word of the cathedral that they hope will prove their salvation, as they have no option but to put their trust in God to deliver them from this fatal disease. But among their number is the young boy Griffin (Hamish MacFarlane), and he sees things that are beyond this realm, into the future: could he be their actual saviour?
Director Vincent Ward made his name internationally, albeit to a smaller extent than many of his contemporaries, with this curio, apparently a science fiction yarn that was more using its time travel theme for mystical ends instead of something like Back to the Future Part II which was being filmed when this was released across the world. Ward certainly had a vision for how he wanted his film to look, the medieval sequences coming across as not only authentic in image, but also in how they sounded too, with a version of English that was appropriately arcane, yet possible to be understood by the 1988 audience. The fact that he had his cast speak in hybrid Northern English-Scottish-Irish accents helped with that impression, and for a work shot on such a low budget, this was an undeniable achievement.
On the other hand, do not go expecting something like France's Les Visiteurs, which took the similar concept and applied to comedy and therefore was a far bigger hit: The Navigator was strictly cult material, and a lot of that was down to the way its meaning was kept deliberately obscure, leaving more audiences scratching their heads by the conclusion than those who were stroking their chins and going "Ah, yes, it’s all clear to me now!" It was clear to Ward and his co-writers what was going on, but to cotton on you had to be attuned to its particular mixture of the down and dirty medieval landscapes and characters and the high-falutin' weirdness that was in every frame, a deliberate move towards the dreamlike, though not necessarily the nightmarish.
This was not a horror movie, though the occasional horrible thing happened, and the threat of falling ill and dying was arbitrarily affecting just about every community in the land (the decade's AIDS metaphor showing up here), with the one we were focused on believing if it just made a "spike" for the spire of the cathedral then God Almighty would preserve them for being so devout in their expression of faith. When Connor returns, he seems shocked by what he has seen, and reluctant to progress much further when a cynicism has crept into his bones, but the positivity of Griffin shakes him out of his funk and he agrees to lead a party to the cathedral, which somehow involves he and five others, including the boy, travelling underground. This is ostensibly to gather the copper necessary to take to the foundry, but while they are beneath the earth Griffin has a vision again.
Thus what has been black and white turns to colour, though Ward was careful not to splash the hues across his frame, he was shooting at night as the point was to get the spike on the spire before dawn broke. The party has broken through to the other side of the world in New Zealand, but not in 14th century New Zealand, the 1988 nation where some higher power has been guiding them through Griffin's possible hallucinations which may not be that at all. There they will have to negotiate traffic-filled roads and rowdy locals, but as if God genuinely is on their side, they manage to find a foundry on the very night it is set to close, and the bemused workers, three of them, are happy to assist them. And then they spot the cathedral, one without a spire... The Navigator had such an authentically strange atmosphere that it was tempting not to bother about its themes of sacrifice and fate and simple enjoy the tone and appearance that was so meticulously crafted by Ward - it was little wonder he was snapped up to make blockbusters, and even less of a wonder that his skills proved too individual to adapt to the big productions. Not for everyone, but if you were on its wavelength, you would surely appreciate it. Music by Davood A. Tabrizi (a major contributing factor to the effect).