Joe Dante holds something of a rarefied place in film fandom since he's one of the dreamers who was able to break into the industry and put his own fantasies on the screen. He started out by writing reviews of genre films for fan magazines (which were later reprinted in Video Watchdog) and eventually got a job cutting trailers for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which led to directing gigs like Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha. It was after he went out on his own to make The Howling that he was tapped by Steven Spielberg to direct one of the better segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (the gonzo reimagining of "It's a Good Life") as well as Gremlins, which was such a major hit that it allowed him to develop a more personal project. That turned out to be 1985's Explorers, a feature-length wish-fulfillment fantasy for sci-fi geeks everywhere.
Best known today for marking the screen debuts of Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, Explorers is mostly seen through the eyes of Hawke's pop-culture obsessive (obviously patterned after Dante), who gravitates to science fiction epics like War of the Worlds and This Island Earth, much like I was drawn to this film and watched it repeatedly when I was an impressionable young lad. Phoenix is much more down-to-earth, the rational proponent of science fact who is able to translate an image from Hawke's recurring flying dreams (which feature some Tron-like landscapes) into an actual circuit capable of creating a force field that he can control with his 128K Apple computer (an obvious hand-me-down from his computer-scientist father). To complete the trio they enlist gearhead Jason Presson, the product of a broken home who helps build and christen their spacecraft, the Thunder Road, which quite appropriately has a television screen as its main window. This is because when our three young explorers finally make it into space, they find that television has most emphatically preceded them.
Before they get there, though, there's much ado about their interactions with each other and with their peers, most notably a bully who doesn't like anybody with a larger vocabulary than he has. (One of the deleted scenes on the DVD actually shows what led up to their confrontation. In the theatrical cut we're simply thrust into the middle of it, making it seem like we've been ambushed by this dullard in much the same way that Hawke is.) The three boys also take their time learning how the alien technology that's been zapped into their brains works and lovingly building the craft that they hope will take them into space safely -- and maybe even get them back home again.
If Explorers has a major flaw it is that its two halves don't mesh as well as they could. For one thing, it takes an hour for Hawke, Phoenix and Presson to actually leave Earth, and when they do they don't get to explore much before they're zapped through space to the alien ship that has been the source of the mysterious broadcasts. (It seems the aliens have been sending their own messages into space hoping to find those -- like Hawke -- with receptive minds.) As they set out on their journey Hawke exclaims with wonder, "It feels like a dream, doesn't it? I mean, it's all so perfect." After the three of them have spent several minutes wandering around the seemingly abandoned spaceship, though, he glumly concedes, "I hate to say this, but this isn't the way I thought it would be at all." I'm sure many filmgoers in 1985 felt the same way, even if Rob Bottin's creatures (once they appear) are pretty nifty. You just wish they had been given something more to do than spout pop-culture catchphrases and make obvious points about the way human beings treat aliens (or misfits of any kind, really) on Earth.
The constant stream of in-jokes is part and parcel of what makes a Joe Dante film a Joe Dante film, though. No matter what the project, he loves to pack his films with TV and movie references and it's quite possible that this one incorporates the most. He even includes a couple sly nods to his own films among the headlines of a prop newspaper ("Homewood School Teacher Reported Missing" for Twilight Zone: The Movie and "Kingston Falls 'Riot' Still Unexplained" for Gremlins). He also gives plum roles to Mary Kay Place as Hawke's indulgent mother and James Cromwell as Phoenix's absent-minded father, but he saves the best for two members of his repertory company.
First there's Robert Picardo (who got his break playing Eddie Quist, the psychopathic killer in The Howling) as the strong-chinned hero of Starkiller, a cheesy space opera with hilariously awful special effects seen playing at a drive-in. It's the kind of film that one could easily imagine Roger Corman picking up for domestic distribution. (If you look carefully, the scant dialogue in Starkiller is clearly dubbed -- and not very well, either.) Then there's Dante stalwart Dick Miller as a helicopter pilot who encounters the boys during their maiden flight and appears to be a threat that could ground them both literally and figuratively. As it turns out, though, he's sympathetic to their cause and even has a room full of miniature soldiers, showing one way in which adolescent fantasies can carry over into adulthood.
Speaking of which, one of the few nods in the direction of maturity in the film is represented by Hawke's hopeless crush on local girl Amanda Peterson (your standard, seemingly unattainable, girl next door-type), which is echoed by Phoenix's budding romance with a female alien. That may raise a few red flags for some (especially coming from the vantage point of one who has seen more adult fare like Galaxy of Terror), but the film as a whole is so sweet and innocent that's there's no chance of it turning icky at all. (The less said about Hawke's manipulation of the male alien's antennae, though, the better.)
I would have been nine years old when Explorers was released in the summer of 1985, making me just a few years younger than its three suburban protagonists - Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren - but well within the age range to accept them as my onscreen surrogates. Seeing the movie back then might have been one of those pivotal moviegoing experiences that profoundly affected me for years afterward. Perhaps, like Craig, I would have watched the film over and over again had I been aware of it back then.
But I didn't see Explorers back in 1985. In fact, until Craig proposed covering the film for this series of reviews, I hadn't seen a frame of it. I never caught a few minutes of it on TV, never saw trailers or TV spots for it, never so much as glanced at a poster or VHS sleeve. I was only vaguely aware of its existence until recently, and I don't think I could have told you that Joe Dante was the film's director. In short, I approached Explorers as a complete newcomer with no expectations or emotional/nostalgic baggage.
Now that I have finally seen Explorers, I am of two minds about it because the film plays like two very different movies operating under the same banner and undergoes a radical shift in tone in its final third. But before we get to that, let's talk about that first two-thirds, shall we? This was a world I knew well. Our hero, Ben, is a young science-fiction junkie who spends his days dealing with typical kid problems (playground bullies, his first crush, schoolwork and teachers) but by night immerses himself in the fantastic world of comic books and vintage sci-fi movies. Brother, I can relate. I've been there, man. Definitely been there. If nothing else, Explorers offers a pitch-perfect snapshot of Reagan-era nerd culture in those pre-Internet days when it wasn't so easy to connect with others who shared your particular fetishes and when the precious raw material of geekdom (books, movies, TV shows) was not so plentiful or readily accessible either. Back then, being a nerd involved a bit more detective work and persistence.
Explorers also astutely captures a vital aspect of kid life usually ignored by movies: the state of being "friends-in-law." (Admittedly, I had to borrow that term from Seinfeld, but it's a valuable contribution to the language and should be in the dictionary.) The main character, Ben, has two friends in this flick: tough kid Darren and budding computer whiz Wolfgang. These three boys comprise the team that will eventually build a homemade spaceship and venture into the cosmos, but the whole enterprise centers around Ben. Without him, there's no way that Wolfgang and Darren would ever even meet, let alone hang out together. If Ben's family moved away from this town, Wolfgang and Darren would certainly not continue to be friends. These kinds of uneasy alliances are common when you're a kid. I liked how Explorers captured the dynamics operating within this group and how our three heroes were seemingly always squabbling amongst themselves, each child with his own personal agenda regarding How Things Should Be.
The writer, director, and actors should all receive credit for making these three boys seem very lifelike and making their little suburban world feel very lived-in and not simply contrived for the sake of the cameras. The semi-chaotic household in which serious-minded computer prodigy Wolfgang grows up particularly struck a chord with me - not because it reminded me of my own household (which was much more like Ben's) but because it so closely resembled that of one of my childhood friends, the first kid on our block to have a modem attached to his computer, the first in fact to actually have a computer in his room. Speaking of Wolfgang's family, I was impressed with the way Explorers refused to fall into the usual kid-movie trap of turning all the adult characters into fools, villains, or both. There is an adult character (played by Dick Miller) who does stumble onto the boys' home-grown space cruiser, and I kept waiting for this man to become the kids' scheming, nefarious nemesis. But the movie, mercifully, does not go in this direction.
Alas, the movie does take a wild new direction in its final third, and this was the point at which the spell wore off for me. I suppose in retrospect that Joe Dante's early-in-the-proceedings tribute to Looney Toons director Chuck Jones should have set off alarm bells, but nevertheless I was completely unprepared for Explorers's sudden, third-act shift into madcap outer space Komedy with a Kapital K (like Martians Go Home or Mom and Dad Save the World). Up until this point, the movie had played like a much-subdued, more-realistic Goonies crossed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie had taken its characters and plot seriously and was doing what some of the best science-fiction stories can do: create in the viewer a sense of wonder and enchantment at the seemingly limitless possibilities afforded us by the vast reaches of the galaxy. I especially enjoyed the film's dream sequences with Ben soaring over a Tron-like landscape, and I was intrigued by the subplot in which it was revealed that other characters were having similar dreams. I wondered: where was this all heading?
Where it was heading was a garish, over-the-top, relentlessly zany and ultimately anticlimactic sequence set aboard an alien spacecraft. There, the three Earth boys interact with two bona fide aliens whose perceptions of humankind are based entirely on television. As Craig pointed out, the design of these creatures is quite remarkable. But my problem was, they don't look like they belong in this film. With their bulgy, fat-bottomed bodies and googly Muppet eyes, they look like they'd be more at home in, say, Pufnstuf or even Meet the Feebles than in Explorers. (One creature in this sequence, a magnificently-created robotic spider, was more in keeping with the film's overall production design.) The movie's sense of slowly-building wonder is simply tossed aside for frantic sketch-comedy schtick. Admittedly, there are some laughs here. I chuckled aloud at one alien's complete misreading of the TV show Lassie, for instance. Overall, though, this entire sequence felt grossly out of place and, worse yet, a betrayal of the film's first two-thirds. The film's closing moments do what they can to restore the earlier Close Encounters-ish sense of wonderment, but I was no longer on board. Now that we know what's really out there, we have to wonder if this entire journey was even worth the effort.
Explorers is 66.6% of a fine 1980s science-fiction adventure, and director Dante's eye for detail is evident throughout the entire production. The film is to be commended for its believable performances, still-impressive effects work, and dozens of thoughtful little flourishes. I have not even mentioned the film's hilarious movie-within-a-movie, Starkiller with the invaluable Robert Picardo. There is so much to praise about that 66.6%. But oh, that 33.3...