Explorers (1985) / Sci Fi-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for mild language and violence
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Amanda Peterson, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Mary Kay Place, James Cromwell, Dana Ivey, Meshach Taylor, Danny Nucci
Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: Eric Luke
Review published May 28, 2006
Another Spielberg-ian family film from director Joe Dante, although unlike his previous film, Gremlins, it isn't produced by Steven Spielberg's production house, despite its very derivative leanings. Dante has claimed that his film was never quite finished, with the studio dumping it into theaters before it was quite ready for release. Dante subsequently revisited the film, adding an extra scene he had filmed, removing others in the home video release years later. Even with the production problems, the story holds together remarkably well, and it is even a modestly enjoyable experience, helped tremendously by quality casting.
Explorers marks the big screen debuts of two future stars, Ethan Hawke (Mystery Date, Before Sunrise) and River Phoenix (The Last Crusade, Sneakers), who, along with Jason Presson (Lady in White, The Stone Boy), make up the three young boys with a thirst for adventure and scientific exploration. In their dreams the boys have a connection to a circuit board that they eventually use to build their own little hovering spacecraft, thanks to the help of a strange spherical energy capsule that they use their computer to control. The makeshift spaceship gets them into all sorts of adventures, before culminating in a close encounter with aliens in outer space.
Fans of Joe Dante will recognize many of his trademark elements, starting with the aforementioned alliance with the wide-eyed outlook commonly associated with Steven Spielberg's style of filmmaking. Dante also pays many homages to early animators and cinematic influences stemming from a lifelong love of B-Movies, cartoons, and 1950s television. He also continues to employ a plethora of in-jokes for the adults to wax nostalgic over, while still dishing up enough exciting visual elements to keep the kids entertained in the audience.
While Explorers is a simplistic and not terribly mind-expanding adventure, it retains a likeability through good characterizations and a sense of fun. In many ways, Dante reversed the trend that he had started in the much more malevolent Gremlins by imbuing his characters and situations with a good deal of sweetness, which comes off as genuine and innocent. Like other Spielbergian influenced films, this one is all about the fulfillment of one's boyhood dreams in a time when we all believed that anything could happen.
Despite the finer qualities, the patience for some members of the viewing audience will start to wane when the overly cutesy aliens are introduced, spewing out gags that are neither funny nor necessary. The costume and set design are also not altogether viscerally appealing, which probably resulted in frustration for the marketers of the film who probably wanted cute little creatures that every boy and girl would want to own a doll of. As a result, the film tanked at the box office, but it has gained a small following over the years among people nostalgic for the family films of the mid-1980s, such as The Goonies and Stand By Me.
©2006 Vince Leo