by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller
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?


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.


By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg is great when he takes advantage of a silhouette. His best example of this is with Indiana Jones. He’ll hide the character in deep sun so you only make out the recognizable shadow of his famous fedora hat and bullwhip by his side. I treasure a moment like this as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade approaches it’s closing credits and he rides off into the sunset along with his father and their trusty companions. (Other great silhouettes happen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark – when he first meets Marion, or when he’s traversing through the South American jungle or when he’s digging towards the Well Of The Souls. I love it every time I see it.)

The Last Crusade no longer offers the mystery of the famed archeologist. Unlike Raiders where Indy only says what is necessary and his past experiences remain unknown, this story offers a background. How does Indy first dabble into the world of rare antiquities and what did he miss out on as a child followed by an adventurous transition into adulthood? How about that scar on his chin? There are some answers here.

Harrison Ford keeps Indy stoic and only amusingly frustrated when interfered with by pesky Nazis and a wonderfully naive and innocent Sean Connery as his father, Henry Jones. Their pursuit of the Holy Grail, the cup that belonged to Christ at The Last Supper, is a similar narrative sequence of events to Indy’s first adventure. However, what sets it apart here is the relationship between father and son. I imagine it’s a similar connection between a lot of dads and their sons, and therefore I have a nice affection for the film.

Spielberg continues to be great with his action moments by keeping it light and fun. River Phoenix echoes a young Indy as Ford would have played it as a pre teen. It’s a convenient short story to show how the character earns the hat, the jacket, the whip and even his infamous fear of snakes.

Boat chases, underground relics, rats and fist fights atop a tank are well edited and clearly shot.

The 3rd of four wonderful adventures (soon to be five) is still fun to watch and offers enjoyment that many of today’s blockbusters have simply forgotten.

It’s always exciting to ride alongside Indiana Jones.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film, Running On Empty, depicts Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti as former radicals against the Vietnam War. They have been running from the authorities for 15 years after bombing a Napalm laboratory as part of their cause. They have two sons, one of them played by River Phoenix with a chance to attend Juilliard. His opportunity does not seem likely however as it would mean he could never see his family again, and his family is reluctant to set him free.

In a film about criminals, this is a story lacking in crime or violence. Lumet’s film is a narrative of a family and how they live by constantly changing their identities, backgrounds, and residences. It’s not a life for an innocent child, especially one with a promising future.

Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his conflicted role. He’s quiet, but he’s torn and he’s accepting of what fate brings him. Sadly, he prevents himself from making his own destiny. A bright element comes in the form of fellow student Lorna, played beautifully by Martha Plimpton. This is her best role as Phoenix’ girlfriend who falls in love with him and shows him pure happiness. She’s the fulcrum that introduces him to what possibilities are available, but he’ll have to sacrifice his current life for a better one, and his parents will have to accept his decision.

There’s no easy wrap up in screenwriter Naomi Foner’s Oscar nominated script. A painful outcome is inevitable. Yet, that’s what makes this a great drama. The conflict is too great for an easy resolution.

What a terrible shame that 5 years after this film, at age 23, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Imagine what he would evolve into as an actor. Here in this role, as well as films like The Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and even as a young Indiana Jones, he was more than just a child actor or a teen magazine cover. He performed with a mystery to his characters where he would never reveal every dimension that his parts possessed. In a film like Running On Empty you almost wish his real life fate never came true.


By Marc S. Sanders

I’m not embarrassed to say it.  I’ve experienced a mid-life crisis.  Last night, I watched Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, and I absolutely broke down in tears when it finished.  As I approach age 50 later this year, the most recent viewing of this film alerted me that my childhood memories are further away than I ever realized before. 

Reiner lifts this coming-of-age story from Stephen King’s novella entitled The Body. Four boys spend the long and hot dog days of summer in Castle Rock, Oregon (it was Maine in King’s story) in their tree house smoking cigarettes and discussing important topics like Annette Funnicello’s breast size on The Mickey Mouse Club and the recent disappearance of a twelve-year-old kid.  Yackety Yak and Lollipop play on their transistor radio in the background.  The wimpiest one of the pack, Vern (Jerry O’Connell), overhears the location of the kid’s body is off the side of the railroad tracks, about twenty miles away.  Teddy (Corey Feldman), along with best friends Chris (River Phoenix) and Gordon (Wil Wheaton) decide to embark on the search for the body and get their picture in the paper, labeled as heroes.  It’ll take them the Labor Day weekend to carry out their quest.

During their long journey across the railroad tracks into the woods, the four boys will discover what concerns them, like figuring out if Goofy is a dog and who could win in a fight; Superman or Mighty Mouse.  As well, they’ll uncover what gives them anxiety ahead of their entry into adulthood.  Gordon lives with being unloved by his parents both before and following the accidental death of his older brother (John Cusack).  Chris lives with being unfairly labeled as a young hoodlum.  Teddy endures the aftermath of an abusive military father currently living in the looney bin.  Vern suffers from a hesitancy to live for adventure and risk due to ongoing fear. These boys had a future that awaited, but for some it seemed like there was no escaping the destiny the locals of their small town had already mapped out for them. 

In the last few years, I reconnected with a childhood friend by means of social media.  Visiting New York City annually over a three-year period, I got to see Scott in person and recollect on our times together.  It had been over thirty years since we had seen or spoken with one another.  We reminisced about tormenting the substitute teachers, and our first crushes.  We reflected on favorite movie scenes that we acted out in between classes.  We are different now, though.  Nowhere near the same as we were at age 12.  We have families and careers and responsibilities.  Yet, our memories of trading comic books, talking dirty, going to movies, and acting out cops and robbers shoot outs in the backyard all remain. 

When Stand By Me opens, a present day adult (Richard Dreyfuss) is shown reflecting in the distance following reading an article about a lawyer who was killed in a restaurant.  This narrator then flashes us back to the year 1959 when this adventure between him and his three friends occurred.  One of those friends was the lawyer who was killed.  A piece of his history has ceased to live and continue on.  That terrifies me personally.  Friends, and family, and people I’ve encountered over my half century will leave my presence, never to be seen or spoken to again.  I’ll never get the opportunity to reflect with them again, much less make new memories.  I’m now living in an age where Facebook comments seem to weekly consist of saying “very sorry for your loss.”  Friends are losing their parents.  Some are passing away themselves.

Stand By Me might not be altogether realistic.  The boys are getting overpowered by a sinister Kiefer Sutherland, who’s not afraid to use a switch blade and cut one of the kids’ throats.  King’s story also feels like an elevated Hardy Boys or Tom Sawyer kind of adventure.  I don’t know of anyone who went looking for a mutilated corpse during my summer days living in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  The adventure conceived by Stephen King serves as a thrill that you imagine as you read it off of the page.  My upbringing consisted of play dates and sleepovers with Scott, Star Wars toys and Saturday morning cartoons.  Yet, the connections that thread the main story together are what’s to treasure in Rob Reiner’s film.  The friends we make in grade school before becoming interested in high school, alcohol, sex, and career planning, are the most important people we know and first encounter in our lifetimes.  It’s impossible to forget them or the impact they had on our lives.  Scott certainly had an impact on my life.  I credit my sense of humor to him, and his carefree attitude to the ugliness of this world.  Sometimes that’s all we have to survive.

King and Reiner use the body that is being sought as a device to drive the characters.  What’s going to bring these boys together with no outside influence?  How can young Gordon deliver his revered sense of imagination as the writer he’s to become?  The best way is to put the boys around a camp fire.  Gordon can then entertain his pals with the story of an incredibly fat kid who got his revenge on the locals during a pie eating contest that results in a massive “Barforama.”  It’s silly and sophomoric and childish fun, but for 12-year-olds, it’s the best thing imaginable.  Teddy dreams of being an army hero storming the beaches of Normandy like his father was rumored to have done.  His sleeping bag is his machine gun mowing down an oncoming train.  Vern’s favorite food?  Watch the movie to find out.  Chris might be regarded as the outlaw, but he’s also the most mature, and perhaps the mentor to Gordon who suffers from the loss of the brother he loved, as much as he suffers from the neglect of his mother and father.  At age 12, in 1959, Chris was all that Gordon had.  I may have had more than Gordon at that age, but whenever I was with Scott, he’s all that I had.

Ultimately, Stand By Me is not an adventure or a silly comedy about boys being boys.  It’s a character study of kids just outside of their formative years.  It’s a film that captures a single moment before friendships inevitably expire.  It’s a reminder to embrace those you’ve treasured over your lifetime, because we cannot be twelve years old forever.