Mike does Explorers

“We are going where no man has gone before…to unlock the secrets of the universe! It’s pretty cool!”

The Scoop: 1985 PG, directed by Joe Dante and starring Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Amanda Peterson, Dick Miller and Robert Picardo

Tagline: The adventure begins in your own back yard.

Summary Capsule: Three middle-schoolers build a space ship in the back yard and proceed to make a close encounter of the weird kind. Think of it as The Goonies in space.

Mike’s Rating: Four out of five Rolls Canardleys

Mike’s Review: Movies are very rarely perfect. Even Lord of the Rings, one of the most perfectly-realized film sagas in history, had points near the middle that made you wanna sigh with frustration (Faramir *never* took Sam and Frodo all the way back to Osgiliath, and it totally destroys his character arc to have him do that! Arg! Moving on). That being said, Explorers is far from perfect, and kind of goes wildly off the rails in the third reel, but the charm of its leads, coupled with the sheer whimsy of the goofy sci-fi concept makes this film a widely undiscovered gem in the treasure chest that is eighties film-making.

Ben and Wolfgang are two misfits in their day-to-day junior high school existence. Ben is a science fiction nerd who collects novels about close encounters and outer space adventures. Wolfgang is a too-smart-for-his-own-good genius who wears spats, tweed jackets and regrettably weak-seamed corduroys. The two are harassed daily by bullies, and Ben pines for a certain unattainable blonde in his class. When tough poor kid Darren helps Ben out with a particularly nasty bully, he gets drawn into Ben and Wolfgang’s after-school activities, which go way beyond your normal Dungeons and Dragons session. See, Ben’s been having weirdly vivid dreams about flying over Tron-like CGI circuit-boards and has been drawing what he can remember and giving the diagrams to Wolfgang, who’s been using them to build a working computer. On Darren’s first visit to Wolfgang’s house they manage to get the thing working only to blow a perfectly-spherical hole through a bookshelf. Eventually they realize that a nine volt battery-charged 286 computer is generating a floating impenetrable force-field in which no inertial forces can be felt. The three get to work creating a vessel they can fly around in out of an old tilt-a-whirl from a junkyard, and then set out to be the youngest astronauts ever, and answer the call of the extraterrestrials who are psychically contacting them.

Considering the cast is mainly made up of pre-teens, it’s kind of remarkable how natural the characters feel and one can definitely see how Hawke and Phoenix would go on to have the amazing screen presence they would command in later roles. I identified with these characters so well when watching this movie as a child simply because these guys acted the way I would’ve acted in their situation. The film is sympathetic to the leads, and their various home/school situations are brilliantly written in a way that conveys how lonely it can be to be a kid and how important it is to have friends to lean on. They also serve as a contrast to the implausible and fantastical adventure these kids are gearing up to go on. The end result is that you find yourself rooting for these kids all the way, despite the fact that they’re endangering their lives to an almost ludicrous degree.

The special effects are done really well and actually hold up which is a rather nice surprise, and the makeup for the aliens when they’re finally realized is kind of quirky and cartoonish, but then, why shouldn’t it be? Whose to say aliens don’t get beer guts? The film takes a bit of a dive when we finally meet the aliens after a long build up and it turns out to be kind of a let-down. Even Ben, seemingly speaking for the audience, comments that’s he’s kind of disappointed.  But then there’s a final twist, which I won’t spoil here, but through which the kids find out they have more in common with their new extra-terrestrial buddies than they ever could have guessed. A subplot about a helicopter pilot who sees the boys spaceship and becomes obsessed with investigating them is a little disposable, but Joe Dante regular Dick Miller turns it into something a little sweet; a story of a guy who’s old enough to have lost his sense of imagination, but who manages to see something that stirs the 12-year-old in him.  The bullies get a quick comeuppance, and is there any doubt Ben will get the girl in the end? Of course not!

Ultimately Explorers explores more than just the secrets of the universe. It explores the feeling of getting beaten down day by day by the little inequities and frustrations of life, but still being brave enough to hold on to that little spark of imagination that makes you want to keep dreaming.

Oh crap, Run! It’s INS!!


    • Is It Worth Staying Through End Credits? There’s a brief reappearance by Wak who tells a joke before the credits go normal.
    • This was the first feature length Motion Picture for both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.
    • As the boys look through the junkyard for the pieces for their ship, Rosebud (the sled from Citizen Kane) can be seen sitting at the top of a pile.
    • When the helicopter pilot looks the newspaper, one of the headlines says “Kingston Falls ‘Riot’ Still Unexplained”. Kingston Falls was the town where the events in Gremlins (also directed by Joe Dante), took place.
    • The first film Industrial Light and Magic actually co-produced with a major studio.
    • Inside Wolfgang’s basement, the toy monkey from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, can be seen.
    • At one point, the boys are watching at the Drive-In a movie featuring a spacefaring hero named Starkiller. “Luke  Starkiller” was George Lucas’ original name for the hero in Star Wars. The sound effects from the drive-in movie were from the Atari game Yar’s Revenge.
    • The film was never finished, and was released for review as a work in progress. The studio decided to move up the release date and release the film as it was.

Groovy Quotes

Wolfgan Muller: Ben…don’t touch.
Ben Crandall: “Mr. Professor”. It’s *my* dream and I’ll touch it if I want.

Wolfgang Muller: You know, you are such an obsessive person Ben, and that drives me crazy, because you can’t be emotional if you’re going to do anything scientifically.

Ben Crandall: We are going where no man has gone before…to unlock the secrets of the universe! It’s pretty cool!

Wak: Look, I know I must look weird to you but how do you think you look to me? I watched four episodes of “Lassie” before I figured out why the little hairy kid never spoke. I mean, he rolled over, sure, he did that fine but, I don’t think he deserved a series for that!

Wak: Look, we sent out those transmissions because we wanted to meet, but we knew it had to be somebody special! You! You’re not like the rest of them. You know we can be friends…if we only got the chance.

Ben Crandall: But this, see, this isn’t real! And we don’t really kill people! Well, we do, but not aliens, cause we haven’t met any!

Lori Swenson: If this is all a dream, whats gonna happen when we wake up?
Ben Crandall: I don’t know, but I cant wait to find out.

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  1. Yeah, this movie was a real mixed bag for me. I saw it not too long ago, and at first I thought it was awesome – I was like ‘why the hell did I not see this movie as a kid? I would have loved it!’ Then it got to the bit with the googly-eyed aliens telling bad jokes, and that kinda killed the mood. Up to that point, it was every imaginative kid’s dream come true, and then it just turned into an episode of ‘What Hollywood Thought Kids Thought Was Funny In The ’80s’ – and honestly, that really punctured the balloon for me. Still, there’s a real sense of wonder up ’til that point, so it’s certainly not a BAD film; it’s just, wow, what a crash-and-burn ending.

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