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Luis Buñuel described Metropolis as two movies glued together by their bellies; Joe Dante's Explorers is a similar case. The first two thirds is a wonderful story about young teens on a mysterious quest, and the last third is a Looney Tunes riff on our entire culture as seen by two blobby aliens obsessed with TV commercials, Elvis Presley and Rock 'n Roll. Dante does both styles exceedingly well. His later Matinee (deeply in need of of special edition consideration over at Universal) is a minor masterpiece that shows equal sensitivity toward his juvenile cast. Explorers is far too charming to be dismissed but it is true that the two halves don't mesh as well as they could - the promise of wonder and imagination in part one doesn't pay off in the 'what the heck' dizziness of the final chapter. But it's still a great movie about something Dante knows better than anyone else, the culture-specific movie-scifi-space obsessions of our 50s-60s generation, the group that read Famous Monsters and dreamed of gloriously elaborate space fantasies long before 2001 and Star Wars.
Viewers unfamiliar with the film will be intrigued to find River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke playing perfectly-realized nerdy (and slightly immature) teen heroes.
In the late 50s I saw a children's book about some neighborhood kids that make their own antigravity ship and fly to Saturn. I think it turned out to be a dream. Explorers takes that basic idea and weds it with other ideas generally similar to Close Encounters and E.T.. 1
Dante and his writer Eric Luke fill Explorers with childhood references. Besides War of the Worlds on TV, we see the unforgettable cover of the Classics Illustrated comix version with its beautifully designed Martian war machines. The boys go to Charles M. Jones Junior High school. Ben relates to all events through sci fi favorites like This Island Earth. Dante gets to reference every bad space opera ever made when an atrocious film-within-the-film called Starkiller is screened at a drive-in.
What makes Explorers special are the kids, who are given personalities and speech patterns that actually resemble real young teens, not after-school-special clones or some aged writer's conception of childhood. Kids at the awkward age of 13 or so are almost never portrayed with this kind of simple sincerity, and Explorers makes them nice middle class types with a range of responses to their environment. Ben is the dreamer and the least mature; he's also the most foolhardy and awkward, and already slightly girl crazy over the dreamy blonde in his homeroom, Lori Swenson (Amanda Peterson). Pleasantly subdued prodigy Wolfgang always tries to bring Ben down to Earth, but is capable of getting just as excited about the adventures to come. Darren is the proto- hood from the wrong side of the tracks, already drifting toward a grim future when he's inspired by his geeky new pals. As an odd trio they become completely absorbed in their fantastic adventure, a dramatic feat that Explorers masters 100%. Close Encounters' Roy Neary spent two hours deciding whether or not to take the big step into space with a bunch of pint-sized bug-eyed aliens; lacking the restraints of adulthood, our boys are as ready to leap into the unknown on general principle.
Their spaceship is an old Tilt-a-Whirl ride from a junkyard; the alien program does all the technical heavy lifting, freeing their flying joyrides to become pure fun. In a bubble all his own, Wolfgang drills through the Earth, much to the consternation of an irate gopher. Ben uses the bubble to peep into Lori's bedroom, a familiar teen fantasy that Explorers embraces along with some non-PC beer drinking that slips into the story as well. The dream is the central image of Explorers, and Lori eventually joins Ben in his free-flight fantasy. All of that part of the film is a rousing success, every bit as touching and inspired as Matinee.
The last act of the film can't be discussed without spoilers. The delicate balance between mundane suburban reality and wondrous fantasy is capped by Corman/Dante icon Dick Miller's enthusiastic endorsement of the voyage. Explorers then changes into an entirely different animal. Surrendering themselves to the summons of an alien intelligence, the boys find not an intergalactic war (This Island Earth) nor a 2001 star-trap, but characters straight from the Chuck Jones cartoon universe, the other big Dante theme that made his Gremlins franchise so entertaining. Wak Wak and Neek turn out to be dizzy immature teenaged space aliens very much like the kind of grab-bag xenomorphs encountered in old cartoons by Duck Dodgers and and Porky Pig. Wolfgang chats with Neek, who affects a Marilyn Monroe voice and arranges her eye and mouth tentacles into an eye-batting seduction mode. Wak Wak (played by Robert Picardo, Dante's all-purpose utility wonder actor) is the boastful kid down the block who tries to impress the boys before finally admitting that both he and his sister have 'invited' them to visit as a prank because their parents are away.
It's dazzling filmmaking and a visual delight. The command of pre- CGI effects techniques is a bright use of the talents of Dante, ILM and monster-maker Rob Bottin. But our reaction is understandably similar to that of the three adventurers. This is it? This is the great magic of the cosmos? Wak Wak addresses the issue with an aside, "Gee, too bad you have to leave before we could tell you the secrets of the universe," and we're a little sad too. It's kind of odd when a splendid cartoon can derail the sense of wonder built up so beautifully. We're left with a collage of old TV images of Earth behavior that the aliens fear - war footage and movie clips showing aliens and anything else 'different' being shot full of holes or blasted out of the sky with ray guns. We weren't looking for such a pat moral, and the let-down is almost audible. 2
But that doesn't mean that 98% of Explorers isn't a dandy show. The goofy aliens are a marvel to behold, and the show is undeniably funny. My kids, now in their twenties, will happily watch it again just to hear Wolfgang's little mouse say "Go to Hell" and watch the way Ethan Hawke gets over-excited about his own enthusiasm. Explorers captures the joy and wonder of being a kid, and that's no small accomplishment.
Also notable in the cast are James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential) as a ditzy father and Mary Kay Place as a protective mother.
Paramount's DVD of Explorers is one of their plainwrap discs, albeit at a friendly bargain price. The enhanced widescreen image is the first video version of the film in its correct aspect ratio, and the improved composition makes all the mattes'n motion control 80's spfx look spiffy indeed. That humble little homemade spaceship, with a plastic model of the space shuttle glued-on as a masthead, has a backyard grandeur of its own.
Viewers reading about the two additional scenes may be disappointed, as I believe both of them were reconstituted into the VHS release 19 years ago. Forgive me if I'm wrong; my kids have been asking what happened to the old VHS for years (it fell apart). This appears to be the slightly shorter theatrical original. (note, 11/22/04: Wrong! Several readers have written to tell me that the exact opposite is true - the missing scenes were in the theatrical version and not on the VHS copy.) Other Dante films always have wonderfully entertaining audio commentaries and that's sorely missed here. But there is still the very special movie to enjoy. Perhaps when director Dante has another blockbuster commercial hit, all of these gems will bounce back in special editions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Explorers rates:
Supplements: deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2004
1. I've only heard speculation about the production circumstances of Explorers, rumors about the picture being pushed into this or that shape by studio pressure. One intriguing 'rumor' that came from friends in the effects biz was that Steven Spielberg bought Eric Luke's story just to appropriate a plot detail about kids flying through the sky on bicycles, which he then used in E.T.. If that's so, then the Explorers script was being thrashed through the Hollywood mill for several years.
2. The movie The Abyss is another film where a terrific story (an undersea adventure) is sidetracked in the last couple of reels by an unwelcome gear change (to a sci fi flick). Ed Harris is in the depths of some bottomless ocean canyon when he comes across a gigantic alien colony that might as well be Santa's village from The Polar Express. The aliens talk to him by showing him (groan) edited clips from TV displaying man's inhumanity to man (groan), dragging out Dante's idea in a much more pretentious context. I like The Abyss a lot, but my eyes just glaze over at that ending ... I didn't think I'd ever see a film where a Sci Fi element would be unwelcome.