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Paramount // PG // October 19, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 10, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) is a dreamer with a passion for science fiction. Not only does the junior high schooler surround himself with comic books, novels, posters, and videos, the genre's even managed to lurch into his subconscious. He dreams of flying over a mammoth circuit board, which he sketches out as best he can to show to his egghead pal Wolfgang (River Phoenix). Ben also befriends Darren, a slightly bitter kid with an unpleasant homelife who tags along for a trip to Wolfgang's basement lab. There, they discover that not only does Ben's schematic do something, but it has the ability to create a spherical force field that isn't mired by inertia. Ben uses the sphere to sneak a peek at the girl he's infatuated with (Can't Buy Me Love's Amanda Peterson), and they raid a junkyard and spend every waking hour cobbling together an aircraft they can all ride in together. Their inaugural trip starts to yank them off the planet, and against Wolfgang's insistence, their followup flight propels them deep into outer space. They're taken to the ship of the aliens that piped that data into Ben's head in the first place, and War of the Worlds it's not.

The first hour or so of Explorers has a wide-eyed awe and innocence about it. This part of the movie is mostly played straight, chronicling these three friends ditching their mundane suburban lives and crafting something fantastic and inconcievable. Once the main characters leave Earth behind and wind up speeding towards some uncharted point in space, Explorers becomes an almost different movie entirely. The tone takes a complete 180, with aliens sporting Saturday morning character designs and a penchant for quoting commercials, TV theme songs, and classic movie heroes verbatim. The transition between the two is jarring and unexpected. It works for me in part because it's so unconventional -- the first time I saw Explorers, I didn't know what to expect when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren stepped foot on the alien ship, but I definitely wasn't expecting that. On the other, I've had a lifelong fascination with camp, Chuck Jones, and vintage sci-fi. These are all elements that have crept into most of Joe Dante's other movies to some extent, but this is a rare instance where all of those influences are prominently on display in a single one of his films. The biggest problem with making a decision like that is you'll inevitably have a handful of viewers like me that completely buy into it, but I can only guess that many will wind up scratching their heads in confusion and wondering why the movie took such a drastic turn in a different direction. It's also interesting to see that that's the same reaction the kids have towards the aliens in the movie.

A couple of months ago, I rewatched Flight of the Navigator for the first time in years, a movie with a vaguely similar premise that I also watched incessantly when I was younger. Given my relative disappointment with Flight of the Navigator with my jaded, quarter-century-old eyes, I was expecting to be letdown by Explorers as well. It was a welcome surprise to see that Explorers still holds up pretty well today. Despite having an incrementally lengthier runtime than most family movies anymore, it moves at a brisk pace and never feels plodding or dull. CGI has obviously advanced considerably in the nineteen years since the movie made its theatrical debut, but aside from those computer-rendered dream sequences, the special effects still look good even close to two decades later. The central cast is great -- Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix obviously went onto great success, however shortlived it may have been for the latter, and it's interesting to see them as dweeby middle schoolers considering the sorts of roles they'd become famous for years later. Eric Luke's screenplay is well-written, giving these three archetypes a strong sense of personality and infusing the script with enough homages to various black-and-white flying saucer flicks to keep Joe Dante's direction enthusiastic throughout. The title is extremely apt -- the movie captures that sense of inquisitive exploration. The three lead characters don't have a clear, unambiguous idea of what they're working towards exactly. They're fueled by a thirst for discovery, and in the early moments of the movie, they're aware that their efforts might not amount to anything. Still, they are literally following their dreams. That mix of uncertainty and wonder is such an important part of childhood, and Explorers does a remarkable job duplicating that feeling.

Video: Considering that this is a budget release and hasn't really been lavished with the same sort of attention it might have if Explorers had been a massive box-office success, the 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is pretty good. Speckling is light and mostly isolated to a couple small sections of the movie, and there otherwise isn't any sign of wear or abuse. Colors seem spot-on, and although black levels strike me as a little anemic in a couple of scattered scenes, they're respectable enough for the bulk of the film. Film grain creeps in to varying degrees, often just a thin, unobtrusive veil, but some scenes, particularly portions set on the destination spacecraft, are swarming with a pervasive, buzzing noise. Sharpness and detail are passable but not particularly impressive.

Audio: I was impressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which has been encoded at Paramount's usual bitrate of 448Kbps. Surrounds are fairly active throughout, frequently just to add atmosphere that's particularly appreciated in some of the nighttime exteriors. The multichannel audio is used to particularly great effect in the computer-generated dream flights, the sphere's chaotic assault in Wolfgang's basement, and to give a sense of the debris scattering everywhere after a test run of some hardware in a workshed. So much of the movie revolves around a speeding homebrew spacecraft that careens across the screen, and those scenes also predictably make good use of the numerous speakers on-hand. Jerry Goldsmith's score also maintains a nice presence, and the LFE channel is effectively used to reinforce some of the particularly weighty sound effects. The film's dialogue comes through well, generally rooted in the center channel but occasionally spreading out to offer some directionality.

Also included are a Dolby Digital stereo surrond mix, English subtitles, and closed captions.

Supplements: This DVD includes two additional scenes, running a little under four minutes total. "Wolfgang Is Bullied" is fairly self-explanatory, introducing the 'elephantitis' quip, setting up Ben's peeping Tom-ism, and showing Ben fork over the dream-schematics to Wolfgang. "Unexpected Thunder Road Ride" offers an extended peek of our intrepid heroes trying to shuttle the Tilt-A-Whirl away from the junkyard. It's typical, even for newly-produced, big-budget flicks, for deleted scenes to be battered and low resolution. It's nice to see that these extra scenes are indistinguishable in quality from the rest of the movie, presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It's even closed captioned.

The DVD also includes a set of static 16x9 menus, and Explorers has been divided into fourteen chapters.

Conclusion: Explorers should be a nostalgic blast for the twentysomethings that grew up watching it on cable, and with its low sticker price and respectable presentation on DVD, it'd be interesting to see if a younger generation takes to this movie the same way I did in the mid-'80s. Recommended.
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