David is Bill and Helen Freeman's older son. He enjoys his usual routine of playing frisbee with his dog, Bruiser, whom he trains for the Frisbee Championship, school, and hanging out with his friends. His younger brother, Jeff, was born when he was four and he always enjoys teasing him which results in a lot of quarreling to which their parents always get caught in between.
At the beginning of the film, David is shown to be an average boy who resents the insults of Bruiser never being able to catch a frisbee by Jeff and quite fierce too when he gives Jeff a noogie for telling his parents that he has a crush on a schoolmate named Jennifer. He is also very shy around girls, especially when he sees her, and has to ask his father's advice. During his strange experience of being brought eight years into the future, he is at first afraid and scared, but gradually he starts being braver after finding out what really happened to him, shows determination and towards the end is grateful to be back in his own time with his family and even shows forgiveness toward Jeff.
Role in the film
It is July 4, 1978, and David enters Bruiser in a dog frisbee competition which he loses. Jeff rudely remarks that he will never learn to catch one, but David is certain that he will eventually. The Freemans decide to have some burgers for dinner to celebrate the holiday. After dropping Jeff off at the Johnsons' house, they go home with David quietly saying hello to a schoolmate named Jennifer. He asks Bill for advice so he tells him that he has to take a chance using the term, "If you want to learn to swim, you just have to jump in the water."
Later, while David is feeding Bruiser, Helen asks him to go to the woods to pick up Jeff, so he goes, taking Bruiser with him. While looking for Jeff, he gets separated from Bruiser, and Jeff gives him a fright by jumping out of a tree. Furious, he tries to chase him, but hears Bruiser barking in the distance. He finds him near a huge ravine. As he leans over to take a closer look, he loses his balance and falls into it, knocking himself unconscious. He awakes after what seems like a few moments and after climbing out of the ravine, returns home calling to Bruiser whom he thinks is still there. He goes to his house, and is amazed to see an elderly woman named Janet Howard answer the door. He rushes inside, finding everything different with even his bedroom now a study where Janet's husband, Larry, is listening to music. Larry assures David that no one will hurt him, and asks for his name and address. He finally breaks down and cries, asking for his parents. Larry asks Janet to call the police.
David is escorted to the police station, where they try to find out who he is. He answers all their questions, and they are amazed that he says it is 1978 and Jimmy Carter is President. They take him to his family's new house, and he is surprised to find that they have aged with even Bruiser looking different. It is all too much for him, and he faints.
David wakes up in the hospital, with himself asking what is happening. He is even more astonished to see that Jeff is now 16. He tells him that it is 1986 and he should be 20 years old by now. He shows him a lost and found flyer of him stating his name, age, and every other description. He continues to tell him what happened after he went missing. His parents made him stick the flyer on every telephone pole and tree every Saturday, and refused to believe that he was dead. Bill comes in and tells a scared David that he has to stay in the hospital because they need to find out where he had been for the last eight years, and tests would be conducted to help him remember. He keeps hearing someone calling him, and at first he thinks he's dreaming. The next morning, he is talking to a nurse about what happened to him that very night. He recalls everything, but the doctors and his family see that his brain is giving visual patterns of an unusual alien intelligence.
As the Freemans are getting ready to go home, they are visited by the lead NASA scientist, Dr. Louis Faraday, who had captured a ship very similar to the one in David's thoughts, and had noticed the images from his head at the lab. He asks him to help him sort out this mystery, which he refuses at first, but after hearing that Dr. Faraday only needs 48 hours to give him the truth of where he has been for the past eight years, why he can't remember, the unusual brain activity, and why he hasn't aged, he eventually agrees and goes with him to NASA's main headquarters, where he hears the voice calling him again.
Dr. Faraday shows David his room filled with lots of toys and gives him a special exclusive NASA cap. Then he locks him in with the control operated door. He turns on the TV, and is surprised by the arrival of a robot named R.A.L.F. (Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator) and his controller, Carolyn McAdams. They become good friends with David, who is amazed and disappointed that his favorite show, Starsky and Hutch, has been cancelled. They now show music videos, and Coke is now in several types.
The next morning, David calls his family on the phone in Dr. Faraday's office (while Dr. Faraday listens on an extension). Bill tells him that they are sorting out his new room and miss him greatly. Helen reminds Dr. Faraday of his promise that David would return home in 48 hours.
In a section of the facility, David is wired up to a computer, and is asked several questions about what happened on the night of his fall. His brain reveals strange alien data and star charts leading to a strange planet called Phaelon, 560 light-years away from Earth. He was taken away to there and was travelling beyond the speed of light, leaving him only 4.4 hours on Phaelon, while eight years passed on Earth, which is the reason why he never aged. It is all too much for him, especially when the computer shows answers to things he never even said. He frees himself from the equipment and runs off. Dr. Faraday decides that 48 hours is not going to be enough time to get the information he needs, and puts David down for a whole week.
Later, Carolyn comes into David's room and tells him about Dr. Faraday's decision, and he is furious about the thought of even more time away from his family. He asks her to help him escape and tell his family about Dr. Faraday's decision. She winks in agreement, knowing that the room has one-way glass with guards watching on the other side.
The next morning, David hears the voice again, and decides to investigate. R.A.L.F. comes in, and after getting dressed and his stuff ready, he gets inside R.A.L.F., who takes him to the hanger where an unusual ship is being held. As he moves towards it, the back morphs into stairs for him to climb up. He enters, and sees something unusual in the center. As he is looking, a chair rises from the floor, and the unusual thing reveals himself to be an artificial intelligence called Trimaxion Drone Ship (nicknamed "Max" by David), and that David is the Navigator to help him complete his mission. Meanwhile, the NASA guards find out that he has escaped, and go to the hanger. He decides that now is the time to leave, and orders Max to do so. After breaking from the restraints and laser blasting the door open, David then orders Max to take him 20 miles from there, but he misunderstands the order for going straight up, and results in David almost hitting the ceiling.
Max reaccounts for his mistake by taking then back down, and shows him the first class maneuver, where the ship changes shape and goes at a great speed. After arriving at their destination, Max tells him that his mission was to take unusual creatures from other planets for study on Phaelon, and on Earth, he chose David. His sensors had discovered that humans only use 10% of their brain, so he experimented on David's and filled it with Phaelon information, including star charts. David asks why he was returned to Earth eight years into the future, and Max answers that even though he returns his specimens back to the exact time that he collected them, David's body was too fragile to be taken back through time. After he returned David, he crashed the ship into the power lines, and his star charts were erased, so he needs the ones in David's head to complete his mission. David agrees only if Max takes him back to his family. So they set off in the direction of his home. However, when he asks Max to take them somewhere where the NASA people can't find them, he takes them straight under the ocean. He begins work on his study of creatures. One nearly bites David's head off, which results in his NASA cap being eaten. He then befriends a Puckmaren from the planet Binpuka Minor.
Max is ready to scan David's brain to give the star charts. He at first refuses when he hears that Max has never done it before, and fears he would fry his brain, but Max assures him that he will be safe, and begins the scan, resulting in him also absorbing some other things from David's brain, including insults from Jeff, giving him the ability to feel and express emotions, making him more human-like in behavior, but also more erratic, stubborn, and argumentative.
The ship continues to fly on, unaware that NASA is watching and tracking it down. After a while, David thinks that Max is taking them in the wrong direction, and they argue, resulting in David saying that if he was controlling the ship, they would be home by now, so Max shuts down, leaving the ship to fall from the air. He urges David to take up his title as Navigator. He finally finds the manual controls, and takes over. He teaches Max about music, and then the ship lands at a gas station. He asks the attendant if he could borrow some change to call his family. He silently gives him some money, amazed at the unusual ship parked outside his station.
David uses a pay phone to contact home. Jeff answers, and he asks him for a signal that he can see from the air so he can find their new house without letting the NASA people know he's there, who have now put them under house arrest after finding out that David is returning home and Carolyn had told them what was happening. Jeff uses David's fireworks to signal the ship, David sees them, and precedes to return home, but suddenly realizes that his friends would now all be 20 years old with him still being 12.
The ship lands at David's house, and he disembarks. He sees the NASA people waiting for him, telling everyone that he may be in danger from being associated with an unidentified alien intelligence, and everyone is urging him to get away from the ship. He suddenly decides that he no longer belongs in 1986, and if he stays, NASA will continuously use him for more experiments. After saying goodbye to his family, he decides to travel back to his own time with Max.
Even though Max warns David that travelling through time with him may result in vaporization, his mind is made up. After saying goodbye to him and wishing him luck, Max begins the time travel. Lightning flashes around the ship as it goes though time.
David wakes up back in the ravine he fell into. He is unharmed, and after climbing out, goes back to his house. Just as he is about to open the door, he sees his family in their boat ready to celebrate the Fourth of July. He realizes that he is back in 1978, and everything is back the way he left it before his disappearance. He gets in the boat, and is so happy to see his family again. He even forgives Jeff for scaring him earlier, much to everyone's amazement.
David later discovers that he has retained one memento from his experience: the Puckmaren, who has stowed away in his backpack. The only other ones to know of this are Bruiser and Jeff, who agree to keep it a secret. As he looks up in the sky, he sees the fireworks and the ship flying by on the way back to Phaelon, with Max saying, "See you later, Navigator!" He continues to look up and smiles.