Principal Cast : Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jadon Presson, Amanda Peterson, Bobby Fite, Dana Ivey, Taliesin Jaffe, James Cromwell, Robert Picardo, Karen Mayo-Chandler, Dick Miller, Meshach Taylor, Mary Kay Place, Brooke Bundy, Leslie Rickert.
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 and begin a journey of amazing discovery.
So it’s taken me until after my 48th birthday to actually sit down and watch Explorers, and even knowing the backstory of the film’s troubled production, the lustre of the movie cannot be understated. Explorers is a prime example of the mid-80’s Amblin effect on cinema, with Gremlins helmer Joe Dante making as close to a Spielberg kid-flick as its possible to get without Spielberg’s involvement. Explorers was produced for Paramount Pictures and written by Eric Luke, with music composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith and visual effects work completed by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). In a surprise to me, ILM were co-credited as producers on the film as well, so I’m not quite sure how that works, but I would argue that’s the only time I’ve ever seen a company credited as a producer on a movie. A true product of its time, Explorers boasts the cinematic debut of both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, as well as fun little cameos from James Cromwell, Dana Ivey and Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, as a well-worn subgenre trope is given a big budget injection of delight.
Explorers is basically a kid-fantasy film, in which three young boys form an unlikely friendship and stumble upon a technology allowing them to travel across the country or out into space in the blink of an eye. Thereupon they meet some aliens, have a pop-culture adventure, and return to Earth having grown in some way that audiences feel empathy for. There’s very much a Stand by Me tonal feel to Explorers that’s emblematic of this kind of movie from the period, with Hawke, Phoenix and co-star Jason Presson’s relationship formed primarily from adversity than any naturally occuring friendship arc. The premise skips along happily with a cool otherworldly discovery, naff pseudo-science and the allure of kids seeking revenge on their school bullies or family trauma, mixes in some cartoonish alien nonsense (more on this in a moment) and a low, low, low-key romantic subplot (imagining a horny ten twelve year old Ethan Hawke feels weird to me at this point), and is generally pleasant and engaging enough to sustain the relatively brief sub-90 minute running time.
Explorers was noted at the time for being what Joe Dante would call “unfinished” – Paramount originally had an August 1985 release date set for the movie, a date that would move up to July quite late in post production, meaning that the film’s editing was cut dramatically short and the film dropped into cinemas with mild reviews and audience apathy; it should be noted in a jam-packed American summer of that year you also had the likes of Back To The Future, The Goonies, the first Rambo sequel and a re-release of ET also landing in cinemas – it was a stacked year, in hindsight – so for Paramount to try and capitalise on similarly kid-friendly fare by moving up the release things became riskier, with unfinished VFX and an uneven edit to contend with. The film only grossed $10m on its initial theatrical run from a budget over double that, so officially Explorers was a bomb. It has, however, found a minor cult status with genre fans in the decades since, and is rightly regarded as a mini-classic in introducing two legitimate Hollywood stars to the industry.
The first two-thirds of Explorers plays brilliantly well, with the chemistry between the three young leads bubbling along as they discover the mysterious power bubble allowing them to travel at great speed without inertial damage, daydream about a highschool romance, or find their own voice amidst a calamitously intellectual family life and remarkably hoarder-ish living conditions. Ben, played by Ethan Hawke, has these weird dreams he’s flying above a massive circuit-board (realised in glorious 8-bit CG by ILM and a remarkable throwback to Tron from a few years earlier) and there are glimpses of why he has these magical dreams but little explanation as to how (unless I missed it), while the nerdy Wolfgang (Phoenix) plays his youthful maturity so well it anchors the film in a brilliant ironic wit – you know those films where the kids are always smarter than the adults? That’s Explorers. Dante imbues the film with a playful wonder, an aching youthfulness and innocence, and for the majority of the film I was delighted with it.
Unfortunately – and this is a really big unfortunately – the film’s final third really let me down. Eventually the film leads our three intrepid heroes into outer space, where they encounter a couple of aliens and come to understand their culture, and the basic form of communication we’ve had with them is all our broadcast film and television, so the aliens – Wak and Neek – only communicate through scattered lines of dialogue they’ve embraced from our culture. As a kid I would have absolutely lapped this up – heck, this film would have been an instant favourite of mine had it not taken me nearly fifty years to get around to watching it – but as an adult the premise was a bit too cliched, done way better more recently with Bumblebee in the Transformers live-action franchise. Also, the puppeteering and production design felt too cartoonish, almost like Buck Rogers, and tonally missed the mark of the earlier portions of the film. For a film that takes you into space, Explorers works best when it stays on Earth. Robert Picardo, who has a cameo as an in-film gaudy film character akin to Buck Rogers (LOL), also voices the alien creatures alongside Leslie Rickert. Gaudy set design and just plain silliness doesn’t work as a film’s conclusion after the far more earnest and sympathetic nature of the opening two-thirds.
Explorers feels like Spielberg-lite, and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment to Joe Dante or a condemnation. I did enjoy Explorers up to a point, although the version I saw really felt like it needed more time in the editing bay, to the point it seemed some subplots and arcs were missing entirely (Jason Presson’s character is arguably the most affected, I think) or underdeveloped. Still, it’s a sweet-natured, charming sci-fi fantasy adventure that deserves its place in the pantheon of similarly toned family-friendly fare from the 80’s, sitting alongside Gremlins, The Goonies, The Last Starfighter or Short Circuit and Flight of The Navigator as a mini-minor classic. Explorers – if you can find it – is a good little film.