by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Joe Dante
CAST: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 72% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Family-Friendly Film”
PLOT: Three friends try to unravel the mystery of these strange dreams they’ve all been having, at the same time.
I’m probably biased, but one of the best times to be a teenaged movie fan had to be the 1980s. In the wake of his stupendous earlier successes, Steven Spielberg began to produce movies, letting other directors do the heavy lifting while he contributed behind the scenes. This led to Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, and of course, Back to the Future. All in a two-year period. Awesome.
In an attempt to replicate the success of these box-office favorites, director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) presented a film unabashedly aimed at its target audience, starring a cast of unknown, but immensely likable, teenagers, including two young men making their Hollywood debut: Ethan Hawke and a nerded-up River Phoenix. While Explorers lacks the polish and sophistication of its predecessors, it is undeniably charming and, for a while at least, even a little spooky, even if the ending flies spectacularly off the rails.
Ben Crandall (Hawke) is a teenage kid obsessed with 1950s sci-fi movies. He’s been having these strange dreams filled with what look like electrical schematics. He draws these pictures as best he can and shows them to his best friend, Wolfgang (Phoenix), a science prodigy. Ben also makes friends with Darren (Jason Presson), the stereotypical kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, and brings him along when Wolfgang decides to turn on the machine he built using Ben’s drawings.
What this machine eventually enables them to do is fly around inside a converted Tilt-a-Whirl car using an Apple II computer to steer. (Did I mention this was made in 1985?) One night, though, a phantom signal takes control of their little craft and starts sending it up, up, up…into space? I wouldn’t dream of saying.
As a fourteen-year-old kid watching this movie, I strongly identified with the idea of receiving a message from space, not to mention being able to fly in a makeshift spaceship. To say I envied those kids on screen is a monumental understatement. Their dialogue may not have been as refined as it could have been, and the sub-plot about Ben’s crush on the “gorgeous blonde” in his class is a little ham-handed (not to mention that plot point never really goes anywhere), but I didn’t care. SPACE, man! Just imagine being able to go to SPACE! What a bunch of lucky kids!
Well, naturally, after a couple of false starts, the three of them actually make it to space, where they have a close encounter of the…goofy kind. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. You see, the aliens who were sending these schematics have been listening to and watching decades worth of TV signals. So that’s how they communicate with our heroes. Close Encounters it ain’t. And the way these aliens look…any sense of wonder at being in space and communicating with an alien species gets torpedoed by the fact these guys look like a kid’s version of an alien. Even Ben realizes something’s amiss when he says, “They don’t make any sense.”
So, yeah, Explorers is no Contact. But let’s be fair, it was never meant to be. Sure, it does kind of lead you down that garden path, but the final reels leave you in no doubt that this is sci-fi comedy, not drama. It has not aged as well as its Spielberg-produced contemporaries. But I watch it today, and I still get that little thrill of discovery when they turn that machine on for the first time. And flying around in a spaceship that you built? Who wouldn’t find that idea exciting? Am I right?
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Which character were you most able to identify with or connect with? In what way?
Shoot, are you kidding? Ben, played by Ethan Hawke. He was my age at the time. Loved movies. Loved sci-fi. Wanted to be an astronaut. Had a crush. (Christine Day. Went to my church. Red hair.) And also thought those aliens at the end made no sense. Man, that was ME.
What elements do you feel are necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film? Do you feel this movie had those things?
Explorers has everything necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film…in the first half. The second half goes for easy laughs and cheapens what could have been something wondrous. Alas.