Movie Review: Explorers (1985)
“The adventure begins in your own back yard.”
Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Bobby Fite
Synopsis: A boy obsessed with 50s sci-fi movies about aliens has a recurring dream about a blueprint of some kind, which he draws for his inventor friend. With the help of a third kid, they follow it and build themselves a spaceship.
If Ethan Hawke should ever rue becoming one of those stars for whom A-list status has remained elusive, he can at least console himself with the fact that his career didn’t dry up in the ‘90s like Jason Presson’s, and that he’s still drawing breath, unlike his Explorers co-star and fellow-debutante River Phoenix, who would die from a drugs overdose at the age of 23. Both Hawke and Phoenix give pleasingly disciplined performances here which serve notice of the quality actors they would become as adults. To be fair, Presson isn’t bad either, and his lack of subsequent success just goes to show how talent needs a healthy dose of luck to get along.
Explorers’ small-town setting puts one in mind of its director Joe Dante’s previous movie, the hugely successful (but messy) Gremlins, but the Capra-esque characters in Kingston Falls are gone, replaced by an odd mix of 1950s’ pop culture references in a contemporary (for 1985) setting. The story revolves around three boys whose friendship is more the result of external forces throwing them together than any affinity towards one another. Ben Crandall (Hawke – Assault on Precinct 13, The Purge) is a ‘50s SF geek who, like his nerdy science-obsessed friend Wolfgang (Phoenix – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is regularly confronted by school bullies. Darren (Presson), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, becomes their friend after stepping in to prevent Ben from receiving a beating from local bully Steve Jackson (Bobby Fite) in front of sweet Lori Swenson (Amanda Peterson – Annie), on whom Ben has a major crush.
One night, Ben has a dream in which he’s flying above a giant circuit board. Upon awakening, he sketches the board, and Wolfgang, who’s something of a whizz with a soldering iron, builds the board from his sketch. It’s not long before the three boys realise that someone – or something – is leading them towards designing a makeshift spacecraft constructed from old TVs, knackered washing machines and steel dustbins, which will enable them to make contact.
The idea of an alien life form messing around inside your head would creep most people out, but Explorers is a Joe Dante feel-good picture, so any probing by otherworldly beings is strictly of the non- threatening kind. In fact, probably the most realistic thing about the entire movie is the way in which, upon learning how to operate the alien technology shown to them in Ben’s dream, the boys’ first act is to use it to peek through Lori’s bedroom window. Although Explorers’ pace was reasonably brisk for the mid-1980s, it feels a little sluggish these days, and today’s kids will probably struggle to sit through its set-up, which would probably be in place within ten minutes (instead of an hour) if remade today. For that hour, though, Explorers really feels like it’s building towards a memorable encounter with aliens, but it falls apart in a truly spectacular fashion the moment that contact is made.
The blame for this rests largely with Paramount, who brought Explorers’ release date forward by a couple of months after a change of ownership, and who decided the film was ready for release even though Dante was still in the middle of editing. But that would have made no difference to the comical look chosen for the aliens, or the decision to make them a pair of juvenile children, so Dante and writer Eric Luke must share some of the blame. The way that these aliens have formed their opinion on the human race from viewing the vast backlog of American pop culture has potential, but the film’s hurried production means that the idea is never fully realised, and the film’s final act is a real let-down. At least the wonderful Dick Miller (The Howling) is on hand as a helicopter pilot who figures out what the boys are up to. His character is there to remind us of the sense of childhood wonder that dies with the transition to adulthood, and it does so in a way that simply following the three boys exploits alone would not have done. And then, just as it looks as if he’s shaping up to play a major part in the movie he disappears without trace. As if abducted by aliens…
(Reviewed 2nd April 2016)