EXPLORERS (1985)

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.

TRAINING DAY

By Marc S. Sanders

When I first saw Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day in theaters, I found it difficult to watch. The violence or the induced police brutality is very strong. There’s no humor and there’s no thrill. Just an in your face pull over excuse for a cop to exercise his strong arm with his two strapped nickel played Barettas.

Jump to the present and it’s even harder to look at because what the film perpetuates is quite parallel to how many parties view law enforcement and people of color today. Training Day isn’t pretty, nor is it assuring. It’s more or less glamorized evil with a good-looking Denzel Washington driving a gorgeous looking pimped out black Chevy Monte Carlo.

Washington gives an Oscar winning turn (though I’ve seen him in more deserving and nuanced roles; Hello? Malcolm X, anyone?) as narcotics detective Alonzo Harris. He begins his day taking on a new partner named Jake Hoyt (Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke), a boy scout looking cop fresh out of his uniform and into street clothes eager to advance his career and eventually get the kind of big house that other high salary detectives reside in.

Alonzo knows the streets of Los Angeles so well that he can literally stop his car in the middle of an intersection and every other driver will circumvent around him with no protest. Alonzo is here to show Hoyt how to learn the streets for himself and earn the respect of the various gangs and pushers that will lead to the big busts. Only thing is that Alonzo Harris is not a good man. This is a cop who uses his badge as a way of power and intimidation. In this one day, with each passing moment, Hoyt questions his own training and considers if crossing line after line is how you get ahead. Does Alonzo truly know what it means to be a cop making a difference? Does Alonzo care? Does Hoyt care, or does he only concern himself with his career aspirations?

There’s no question that Fuqua’s film is very well made. His dirty, criminally ridden Los Angeles is very convincing and the command that Washington has with his corrupt cop role is all the more intimidating. However, I didn’t feel good with the film after it ended. I didn’t learn anything about race or social classes in America. I didn’t learn that a cop can be a hero. After all, Jake Hoyt doesn’t exactly take the noble approach to surviving his first day in the new job.

There’s a lot of preaching monologues from Alonzo Harris, who is a pretty frightening guy. He’ll his gun at his apprentice’s head, as a means to convince him to smoke some street PCP, because it’s a first step in knowing these streets. Hoyt gives in to the pressure. Still, none of this tells me anything.

Harris goes from one questionable incident to another and Hoyt gives merely dubious expressions but not much else. Eventually, as things boil over between the two men, Hoyt takes the law into his own hands rather than following procedures.

Training Day dictates who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. In the film, however, the good guy more or less becomes the bad guy by the end. That simply didn’t sit right with me. All the necessary ingredients are here for a good cop/bad cop thriller, but I didn’t feel quite good about myself when the film closed out. There really is no one who comes up triumphant. There’s nothing to question about my own view of the world we live in, and there’s too much edge to allow for any kind of suspense. Alonzo Harris is just a bad, bad guy and John Hoyt is never really a good guy. He’s a wimp succumbing to an evil brainwash.

So, then what’s left is to wonder exactly what is there to truly appreciate in Training Day, and the answer is practically nothing except the construction of the film and Washington’s performance. Otherwise, the film is a harsh fiction never concerned with conveying a message within a real problem area of the United States. I would’ve appreciated a response to a harsh reality.