The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

Anyone unfamiliar with Vincent Ward – perhaps best known as the initial director for Alien 3 – do yourself a favour and check out his first film Vigil; one of the muddiest, psychotronic art-dirges I’ve seen. The Navigator is his follow-up, which is equally tactile and stubbornly artful with an opening thirty minutes consisting of a black and white voyage through a black plague-infested 14th century England. Then the film switches gears as our voyagers tunnel so deep into the monochromatic countryside that they emerge in 1980s New Zealand. Yep, this is a time travel movie.

Most impressively, while not entirely forgoing the fish-out-of-water comedic potential of the material, Ward manages to sustain the mystic-horror tone of the film’s first third. The contemporary surroundings are experienced from the POV of the travellers, transforming highways, factories and architecture into an awe-inspiring industrial landscape of roaring metallic beasts and oppressive monoliths.

Where Terry Gilliam followed a similar muse and created the entirely Gilliamesque black-comedy Time Bandits, Ward, less of a sketchbook to scrapbook filmmaker than Gilliam, more of a pencil-sketch to renaissance painting man, stages a gorgeous realist-fantasy display that is haunted by a level of ambiguity that keeps the film anchored in a netherworld between the real and the unreal. The possibility that either side of the tunnel could be an imagined reality is never entirely dispelled meaning The Navigator can’t be simplified down to its surface pleasures alone, but it can also be enjoyed if taken completely at face-value.

Having seen Vigil last year and now The Navigator, Vincent Ward has become one of the most curious, offbeat talents I’ve discovered recently. His brief but striking filmography raises more questions than it answers but you can see the potential of unrealised projects by description and the strength of these first two movies alone. The Navigator especially shows an incredibly gifted image-maker flexing his muscles with an eye towards commercial-appeal keeping him from falling into passages of self-indulgence, an impulse he shares with fellow Alien-maker Ridley Scott. If the right set of circumstances occurred you could imagine Ward sharing a career trajectory with Scott, but alas only a handful of Ward’s transmissions arrived. Extra props go to Arrow and their lovely restorations for keeping these oddities alive.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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