Title: Explorers (1985)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Ethan Hawke as Ben Crandall
River Phoenix as Wolfgang Muller
Jason Presson as Darren Woods
Tagline: “You don’t need a driver’s license to reach the stars!”
By: Bo from Last Blog on the Left
Pre-screening memories: Ah, Explorers, I hardly remember ye. When a buddy mentioned the movie, I had to freeze in place a moment as synapses not fired in years began to reconnect and offer up flashes of spaceships and a young River Phoenix. And, then, more came. I remembered the spaceship, looking much like the riders’ car from a Tilt-a-Whirl at a local fair, and the thing that drew me to the movie in the first place: adventure.
Ever a fan of the kids-on-their-own adventures like The Goonies (who are, indeed, good enough for me), and of the sci-fi flicks of my earlier years, such as Star Wars, this seemed like two great tastes that taste great together. So why has Explorers fallen off the pop culture radar while others achieved ubiquitous reverence? Who knows? Prior to viewing again, I thought perhaps it was too fluffy, the Spacecamp-like entertainment that is immediately engaging, but has no lasting value; the cinematic equivalent of the Milky Way bar. And those films have their place, the Saturday afternoon movies that you don’t feel guilty for falling asleep on, and no lingering urge to seek them out, to see what it is you missed while drooling on the arm of the couch.
Explorers is the tale of three kids who start having dreams of circuit boards, which they actually build. Needless to say, it’s a fantasy. The circuit boards turn out to be a method of traveling to the stars via some sort of electric bubble. When they begin to receive strange messages while journeying in their makeshift spacecraft, they follow the signal into the stars and meet irritating aliens.
This is a movie that is more heart than brain by a long shot. The spirit is so willing, too. The themes of the outcast kids banding together to do something unexpected and wonderful hits all the right notes. The first act of the movie hums along, introducing its characters well, and even treating the viewer to some post-Tron graphics that have managed to become quaint by today’s standards. The whole thing goes off the rails, though, once the trio makes it to the aliens’ ship. There are several too-long sequences that bog down the film as the kids investigate the strange alien vessel, but that’s nothing compared to the out-and-out trippiness of the aliens themselves. Apparently, they’ve had access to Earth television, which has, in fact, rotted their brains. They are schizophrenic and the scene overstays its welcome with a weird intergalactic talent show that’s about as entertaining as you remember every talent show you’ve ever seen.
I was happy to learn that I was correct on the Tilt-a-Whirl memory, but that was about the only solace I gained from this mess of a third act. There are hints of frivolity, such as the school named after Charles M. Jones (or good old Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame to you and me). There’s even a “Hey, wait, where’s the ground?!” Tunes-style joke here, but it feels so ridiculously out of place. And what about the somber kid, Darren, whose father is apparently occasionally abusive? What happened with him? Eh, I just wanted it to be over. There’s an hour’s worth of fun in Explorers, but the slop that ends the film makes it hard to suggest revisiting it. This is probably one better left in the memory banks, where time has erased the irritation.
Listen to Bo’s recollection of his re-entry into space with ‘Explorers below or download it here.