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Explorers

by Glenn Erickson Jun 05, 2021

One of Joe Dante’s finest pictures speaks heart-to-heart to gee-whiz space fans — transporting us from our backyard to the far reaches of the galaxy. With a boost from aliens unknown, Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson are the intrepid space cadets that construct a fantastic vehicle from mysterious dream-signals, no Interociter required. Their dreams hint at the secret desires in their adolescent imaginations, even without an it’s-all-a-dream sandpit. They dare fly where no man has flown before, a genuine escape from the petty pressures of Junior High. New and old input on the Blu-ray finally tells the full story of the making of an underrated wonder movie.


Explorers
Blu-ray
1985 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 109, 106 min. / Street Date May 25, 2021
Starring: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Amanda Peterson, Dick Miller, Dana Ivey, James Cromwell, Brooke Bundy, Robert Picardo, Leslie Rickert, Mary Kay Place.
Cinematography: John Hora
Film Editor: Tina Hirsch
Production Design: Robert S. Boyle
Visual Effects: Industrial Light and Magic
Special Makeup Effects: Rob Bottin
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Eric Luke
Produced by Edward S. Feldman, David Bombyk, Michael Finnell
Directed by
Joe Dante

The friend of fantasy film fans everywhere and a consummate director of light comedy thrillers, Joe Dante followed up his monster hit Gremlins with the marvelous space travel epic Explorers. The gimmick?  Instead of intrepid astronauts or trigger-happy space troopers, Eric Luke’s original screenplay charts the incredible adventure of ordinary schoolkids imbued with expansive imaginations, the ‘sense of wonder’ inculcated in those of us reared in the U.S. suburbs of the ‘fifties.

Joe Dante knows that territory better than anyone else, the culture-specific movie-sci-fi-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 are going to have a treat — future adult stars River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke play perfectly-realized, believable younger teens; an equally excellent Jason Presson shines as well. Nobody captures the nerdy, lovable-in-their-immaturity reality of this awkward age of childhood as well as does Dante, not even Steven Spielberg. Explorers satisfies as a film about kids, even setting the fantastic content aside.

 

Explorers is fairly realistic, yet it immediately takes on an eerie psychic dimension, with weird shared visions between two good friends. Neither the over-enthusiastic sci-fi nerd Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) nor boy genius Wolfgang Müller (River Phoenix) is particularly adept in the 8th grade social swim; they’re in fact easy prey for random school bullies. They’re experiencing shared dreams they can’t account for, visions of a vast landscape, a cross between a TRON– like circuit board and a futuristic city. When Wolfgang feeds the schematic into his home computer an external progam takes over, producing a blue bubble. The bubble can be directed by computer command and is unaffected by inertia. Soon thereafter the two lads team with their disaffected, somewhat sullen friend Darren Woods (Jason Presson) to build a homemade craft that will allow them to enjoy ‘bubble joy rides.’ The local press reports one of their flights as a UFO. Further ‘dream’ revelations provide the secret bubble-aviators with an unexplainable oxygen supply. What’s it all for?   When an unknown outside force tries to take control of their flight, Wolfgang realizes that the original dreams were planted by unknown ‘others’ beckoning from somewhere in space. The trio doesn’t alert the authorities, but instead packs gear and junk food for a fantastic trip into space and the unknown.

In the late ’50s I once read a children’s picture book about some neighborhood kids that make an 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 of the Third Kind and E.T.. The emphasis is on a fertile kid’s fantasy… what if I could build my own space ship?

 

Because Ben relates to all events through his favorite sci-fi books and movies, Joe Dante and his writer Eric Luke fill Explorers with references to Dante’s personal culture touchstones. When the mystery bubble drills a hole through a shelf of books, I recognized at least three sci-fi pocketbook covers; and there’s of course the Classics Illustrated comix version of The War of the Worlds with its beautifully designed Martian war machines. The boys go to Charles M. Jones Junior High school. When an atrocious film-within-the-film called ‘Starkiller’ is screened at a drive-in, Dante gets to reference every bad-but-beloved space opera ever made. A smart-aleck in the audience tries to impress his date by pointing out the matte lines in the special effects. Ulp, that’s practically my personal teenage biography in a nutshell. Am I the only one willing to fess up to that?

What makes Explorers special are the kids, whose personalities and speech patterns 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. 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 does what he can to bring Ben down to Earth, but is equally inspired by the expedition to come.

Unlike those two, Darren is neither pampered nor sheltered. A sullen tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks, he’s energized by the enthusiasm of his geeky new pals. The odd trio slides into their fantastic adventure one logical step at a time, a dramatic trick that Explorers masters 100%. Close Encounters‘ Roy Neary spent two hours deciding whether or not to step into space with a pack of pint-sized aliens. Our boys recognize a miraculous opportunity when they see it: lacking the restraint of adulthood, they leap into the unknown on general principle.

 

The basic frame for the spacecraft ‘Thunder Road’ is an old Tilt-a-Whirl ride found in a junkyard. The alien program does all the heavy technical lifting, steamrolling the barriers to space travel and 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 universal teen fantasy that Explorers embraces along with some non-PC beer drinking. Dreams are the central image of Explorers. Lori eventually joins Ben in his free-flight fantasy, sort of a sci-fi kid’s version of The Beach Boys’ song Wouldn’t It Be Nice?  That part of the film is a rousing success, every bit as touching and inspired as the bomb shelter teen romance in Dante’s later masterpiece Matinee.

(Spoilers, maybe)

Explorers finesses the delicate balance between mundane suburbia and wondrous fantasy with the enthusiastic presence of actor Dick Miller, the Corman/Dante icon who can claim to have fought aliens from two separate planets, Venus and Davanna (and the word ‘Davanna’ is cited as an in-reference). Miller’s helicopter pilot Charlie Drake ends up being this film’s Nana or Joe Wilson character. Charlie has also been inspired with alien dreams, but he must stay behind and accompany the expedition only in spirit. He witnesses the lift-off of the homemade spaceship, as do some literal ‘Nana’ pooches. If Explorers were a short story, it could end right on Dick Miller’s face and be wholly satisfactory.

For its last act Explorers takes its heroes in a wholly unexpected direction. Surrendering themselves to the summons of an alien intelligence, the boys find not an intergalactic war but amiable characters straight from the Chuck Jones cartoon universe, the other Dante career theme that made his Gremlins franchise so entertaining. The incredibly goofy Wak and Neek turn out to be immature teenagers as well, space alien xenomorphs of the kind that Duck Dodgers would encounter. They’re loitering in the neighborhood due to an abiding interest in ‘fifties American culture. Wolfgang chats with Neek (Leslie Rickert), who affects a Marilyn Monroe voice and arranges her eye and mouth tentacles into eye-batting seduction mode. Wak is played by Robert Picardo, Dante’s all-purpose wonder actor. Picardo’s interpretation makes Wak an intergalactic version of the boastful kid from down the block. He tries to impress the boys before finally admitting that both he and his sister have enticed them to visit as a prank because their parents are away. The boys don’t know whether to be awed or dismayed: “They’re just like we are.”

 

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 — Wak and Neek stretch the limits of what’s possible with makeup effects and radio robotics. It’s also screamingly funny, no small thanks to Robert Picardo’s exuberant improvisations. Best known from the Star Trek franchise, Picardo demonstrates a great versatility in Joe Dante’s movies. He plays a second role in Explorers, a space hero with lip-synch issues.

The filmmakers carefully mix naturalism and escapist fantasy. Typical of Dante’s humor is the insertion of a talking mouse as a comic aside — it may just be pushing paddles but it’s definitely talking. The nutty Müller household and the unseen Woods family keep us focused on the three boys; we learn in the extras that almost all of the Crandall home life was deleted in editorial. The simplicity of the computer-driven space flight allows the film to skip nuts & bolts pseudo-science discussions about anti-gravity paint, etc., and zap right to the fun stuff. The danger element is also handled as an adventure lark. When Wolfgang’s computer control quits high in the stratosphere, the ‘Thunder Road’ loses its levitating bubble and becomes random falling debris. It’s pretty scary — even balloonists carry parachutes.

At my age I associate the name ‘Thunder Road’ not with Bruce Springsteen, but with a movie that these ’80s kids wouldn’t likely know.

 

The Dream sequences tie the movie’s disparate parts together while making a positive statement about the magic discoveries of child-to-teen living: if you’re young and reasonably lucky all of life’s adventures lie ahead and anything seems possible. Some of the adventures are about sex: Explorers’ fantasy is anti-Disney, anti-saccharine yet just as healthy.

In each of his big fantasy features, Joe Dante made pre-CGI special effects do things we’d never seen before. His werewolf transformation is both the most cinematic & scary, he took puppets to creative extremes, and his high-priced incredible shrinking effects have yet to be bettered. Most everything in Explorers looks great, but also has a ‘magical’ feel. An interesting detail is that Industrial Light and Magic is given a co-producer credit.

We applaud Explorers’ Wak and Neek, wonderfully successful movie originals. But it must have been a huge risk while the creatures were being fabricated. Dante knew that Rob Bottin would come through with something remarkable, but this is a delicate concept — what if they had second thoughts right in the middle of production?  Nobody gives Dante and company credit for doing what ‘safe’ filmmakers wouldn’t dare do.

Joe Dante can direct anything well, but his family-fantasy pictures are unlike anyone else’s. I got to take my daughter to see Explorers on a screen and we watched it many times on an old VHS tape. My kids, now in their twenties, will happily watch it again just to hear Wolfgang’s little mouse say ‘Go to Hell’ and enjoy the way Ethan Hawke gets over-excited about his own enthusiasm. The show captures the joy and wonder of being a kid, and that’s no small accomplishment.

 


 

The new Blu-ray of Explorers is the last of Joe Dante’s ‘big’ ’80s movies to arrive in a Blu-ray special edition. John Hora’s expressive cinematography is showcased quite nicely; even in an ordinary gulley cutting through a residential neighborhood, wondrous beams of light shine through and create a magical space.

I saw nothing wrong with the encoding of Explorers; it’s bright and sharply detailed, looking very much like the handsome print I saw projected long ago. I was alerted after the fact that numerous purchasers online were complaining about a distorted image, that some scenes seemed ‘squashed out.’ After re-examining the show I don’t have anything to say except that the suggestion made me start to see some scenes as distorted. There are plenty of round objects in the movie to judge by. I went right to the ‘bubble’ scenes, and those objects looked perfectly round. But now the opening Paramount logo is suspect — should the halo of stars be more rounded? The bottom line is that I would have noticed nothing on my own, and I’ve watched the disc three times now.

When two versions of a film find their way to disc we normally first check out the ‘special’ home video director’s cut. Be advised that the ‘home video cut’ for Explorers was always three minutes shorter — the longest version here is the 109-minute Theatrical Cut.

The big draw on the disc will be its hour-long making-of documentary, which for me was the first full account of how Explorers came together. We get to meet Eric Luke, who cops to being a born and bred sci-fi fan just like Dante. Luke explains that he arrayed his three main characters as the Brain, the Heart and the Hands, taken from Lang’s Metropolis. In Luke’s original script, our boys apparently encounter hostile aliens — we aren’t told much more about the jettisoned storyline.

The production enjoyed a charmed life through casting — Ethan Hawke was discovered by accident. The show worked its way through complicated child labor rules and logistics issues we’d never think of, such as the fact that parts of buildings and landscapes in Petaluma, California had to be duplicated on Hollywood sound stages. In addition to John Hora, Dante had the legendary production designer Robert F. Boyle on his team, and Jerry Goldsmith’s magical music helped shape the film’s fanciful tone.

We learn that the production’s good luck faltered toward the end due to a management change (at Paramount?). About two months were chopped from the finishing schedule, stealing away the editorial time needed to shape and experiment, and discover the optimal combination of scenes. At a certain point the cut just got set in stone. Joe Dante has never had difficulty discussing his movies, and happily relates crazy episodes from his early shoots, both the good and the frustrating. This is the only Dante interview I’ve seen in which he expresses a faint regret, for a movie he feels should have been better. Dante also contributes a fascinating commentary for a reel of surviving outtakes. He points out material that he believes really should have stayed in, to bolster the Teen Romance and Dream-Connection story threads. Joe knows best, but that part of the show is entirely successful as it is.

Ethan Hawke gives his full attention to his memories too, describing Explorers as a wonderful experience all-round. He entered acting simply by tagging along to a friend’s casting tryout, and being tested because he looked good. The casting people and then Dante found him a complete ‘natural.’

The original trailer appears to use an outtake shot of the boys walking at school together, as a united team. Two interview clips are apparently outtakes from the very good 2014 documentary That Guy Dick Miller: Editor Tina Hirsch talks about working with Joe Dante, as does cameraman John Hora. Hora’s interview is capped with a cameo appearance from Miller.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Explorers
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: A Science Fiction Fairy Tale: The Story of Explorers — making-of docu with Joe Dante, screenwriter Eric Luke and star Ethan Hawke; deleted Scenes with optional Joe Dante commentary; archived interviews with cinematographer John Hora and Editor Tina Hirsch; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in keep case
Reviewed:
May 29, 2021
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.