Sunday, April 7, 2013

Explorers (1985)

Fresh of the success of Gremlins, director Joe Dante decided to switch gears a bit. He made a family adventure film about a group of kids who meets an alien and go on an incredible adventure. Most folks expected something along the lines of the immensely popular E.T. but Dante never does anything by the book. Was this flick going to end up more like a prototype for Super 8?

Ben (Ethan Hawke) is a bit of a dreamer and outcast at school. He spends most of his free time watching old sci-fi films (like War of the Worlds and This Island Earth) on TV and thinking about being an astronaut. One night he has an amazing dream about a bizarre circuit board. He is able to draw most of the image and give it to his best friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix). With a name like that you know Wolfgang is a budding scientist and by combining his Commodore 64 with the drawing they two create a strange kind of spherical force field.

The two boys meet up with Darren (Jason Presson) a local tough kid, who helps them out with some bullies. The three pool resources, Ben’s dreams, Wolfgang’s scientific knowledge and Darren’s access to a local junkyard to create a vehicle capable of space travel. It’s good thing too, because Ben is becoming more and more convinced that the dreams are coming from an extraterrestrial intelligence and are an invitation to make first contact. But just what kind of alien will our young Explorers encounter?

Good Points:
  • Solid performance by all three child leads.
  • Has a real spirit of adventure and wonder
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is a perfect fit for the film

Bad Points:
  • Some may find the 80’s optimism and wonder to be cliché
  • The alien encounter is going to ruin the movie for some people
  • The final message of the movie isn’t going to work for everyone

In a way this movie was ahead of its time. It starts off as a conventional kids adventure flick like E.T. or Goonies, but the final 30 minutes take into a movie that could have come from the 90s or 00s. Expectations are subverted and you’re provided with a surprise that will annoy some and make others snicker. But Dante has always had a bit of a dark sense of humor (Gremlins is one dark little movie if you think about it). For me, the first two thirds are excellent and the finale is rough but entertaining. Maybe with another pass or two of the script the anti-Spielberg-ian feel could have been a bit cleaner.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.    


  1. I have mixed feelings about this one -- possibly because I wasn't a kid when I saw it on cable one night. That's not by itself a deal-killer. I frequently am happy to to set my mind to kid-mode and watch a Disney flick or some such thing aimed at a young audience. Still, one never is 100% with those age-resets, so perhaps my vision really wasn't very close to that of a 10-year-old.

    I didn't mind that the aliens were such underwhelming entities that they were mightily impressed by the pop culture of humans. I thought that bit was clever -- technologically advanced creatures very well nonetheless might be lousy poets, singers and scriptwriters who are easy to impress with junk. I didn't even mind the disturbing crush one of them had on one of the boys. But I did think the aliens were excessively cutsie-irksome. They weren't quite as bad as, say, the cringe-inducing talking suit in My Favorite Martian (which has kept me from ever finishing that movie), but at times they came close.

    But, once again, I'm not 10. Maybe the whole thing works better for the target audience, and, besides, there are some good adventure elements to help lessen any pain.

    1. You know I agree with you. When I was a kid, I never liked the aliens much. They were too wacky, and I didn't get the conceit that Dante was going for. I wanted something filled with wonder and awe, just like what Ben was waiting for. So while "Explorers" was one of my favorite films as a kid, I actually liked the lead up and journey into space the most. Even the initial exploration of the startship was cool. But once the aliens showed up, I lost interest.

      I picked up the musical score a year or two ago and there was quite a bit of information from Dante about the making of the film. Once I understood he was going for an anti-Speilberg feel, I understood why the movie ended the way it does. He's also a HUGE fan of Loony Tunes, which explains the antics and too-cute elements going on there. I was never much of a Loony Tunes fan - even as a kid. So revisiting the film with that in mind, I appreciated it a bit more.

      I still think the first two thirds of the film are really excellent stuff. I could identify with all the kids and the wonder of space travel. I also think that the twist would work much better for modern audiences, as opposed to those of us who grew up with Speilberg's touch as kids. That cynical element really came around and took root in the 90s. I think Dante was a decade too early.

    2. As a kid I loved movies and shows about aliens so this film was right up my alley and I saw it at just the right, impressionable age for it to make maximum impact. This is one of my fave Dante films, right up there with MATINEE. It's amazing to think that Dante doesn't dig EXPLORERS because the studio compromised his original vision, but I do love this film so. The three lead kid actors are excellent with River Phoenix showing the promise of brilliance that he would display later on. Great stuff. Good call about it anticipating SUPER 8. I bet Abrams is a big fan of this film.

    3. I need to check out "Matinee" that is one of the few Dante films I've missed, and I really enjoy his stuff. Yeah in the soundtrack liner notes, Dante expresses his disappointment with the final result of this film. Kind of a shame, because I think it works pretty well.