As I've said many times before on this site, the great Joe Dante is, without question, one of my favorite directors of all time. My adoration for all things Dante stems more from the sensibilities found in his films: he loves the same old goofy horror and sci-fi films, the same pointed social satire, and the same dumb slapstick that I do, and infuses each of his movies with all of these elements. From The Howling, one of the best werewolf films ever made, to Gremlins – exactly the bastard cousin-of-E.T.-film that ‘80s audiences needed to wake them from their big Spielbergian hug (its sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, was less cinematically relevant, but a superior film nonetheless), to the surreal genius of The 'Burbs, to Matinee – the culmination of all Dante's work to date, and one of my favorite films of all time – Joe Dante has been turning out small works of equal parts chaos, charm, absurdity, and nostalgia for over twenty years.
Three adolescent boys, spacey sci-fi movie geek Ben (Ethan Hawke in his film debut), über-brain Wolfgang (River Phoenix), and loner Darren (Jason Presson), build their very own spaceship based on blueprints sent telepathically to Ben in the form of a dream. Once the ship is built, the boys begin to live out their dreams of flight – that is, until an unknown signal from somewhere in space begins to beckon them, leading them on an adventure they could never have imagined.
Explorers begins as one of Dante’s best films, and ends as one of his weakest. It’s his fifth feature, made after Gremlins had turned him into a commercially viable director, and it finds him trapped between his past and his future as a filmmaker. The storytelling is more mature, clearly showing off the kind of “inner child” sensibility Spielberg had mastered in the '80s (some of which Dante, having worked under the tutelage of Spielberg for much of that decade, no doubt picked up) and combining it with Dante’s usual in-jokes and sly references. It’s too bad, then, that he wasn’t able to resist his basest instincts – or, at least, find a better way to match the two styles, the way he would go on to do in films like Matinee and Small Soldiers. As it is, Explorers plays like a film divided – the expectations and excitement generated by an excellent first half are almost entirely undermined by outer space sequences that check their brains at the door.
The movie starts with great promise, as we meet Ben, an adolescent boy obsessed by late night black and white science fiction movies on TV, and who has daydreams about possessing the ability to fly or travel to outer space. He’s the kind of boy that some will instantly recognize – for those of us who didn’t grow up dreaming about the next Lebron James or Tom Brady, Ben’s fixations ring true. He’s the kind of boy I was growing up – and the kind of boy Joe Dante was, too. That identification – with the viewer as well as the director – is what makes the first two-thirds of the movie work so well. It’s Dante working with his fetishes at his softest; the wickedness of his previous movies has disappeared in favor of a kind of wide-eyed sincerity. Ethan Hawke, predating his eventual hipper-than-thou persona, is the ideal conduit for this sincerity: convincingly flakey, while still grounding the story in the reality of a kid who dreams of a life only known on the movie screen. It’s a wonderful performance, and for quite a while, Explorers casts a real spell.
F This Movie Fest a couple of years ago and the reactions from everyone in the community seeing it for the first time were just like my original viewing: surprise, confusion, and, ultimately, disappointment. And I got it. This is a movie that begins with the wonder and optimism of childhood fantasies and ends like getting zapped by a joy buzzer.
Many years and many more Joe Dante films later, I have a much better understanding of what the director is after in Explorers. He's not selling out the first half of the movie; he's pulling the rug out from under us, just as he always has. As much as my heart lies with the stuff about the boys building their ship and taking it for a test drive, it's the scenes with the aliens that reveals the truth about who Joe Dante is. He's a cynic at heart, even though his movies are rarely cynical. He sets up E.T. and then has E.T. turn into a slimy, violent gremlin. He introduces a bunch of cool talking toys and then has those toys try to kill their young owner. He takes a summer vacation with Tom Hanks out in idyllic suburbia and then drops him into a murder plot. Dante has made a career out of establishing premises we think we want to see and then twisting them back in our faces, subverting our expectations and forcing us to confront a reality that's a little weirder, a little darker and a good deal bleaker than we could have anticipated. He just disguises it with a lot of energy and humor.
With a completed third act to put these ideas into better focus, Explorers might have been something very special. Through no real fault of Joe Dante's, it never came to be. There's so much about the movie that is right at home in the Spielberg '80s, so I get why so many '80s kids grew up loving it. But it's also a film that offers a pretty bitter pill; kids may not get it because they dig the fantasy of meeting aliens that talk on their level and like all the same stuff, but adult eyes recognize the disappointment of finding intelligent life that's lacking in any real intelligence. Leave it to Joe Dante to turn so many of the tropes of sci-fi and fantasy from the decade upside down inside of a movie that feels right at home in the '80s. The hobbling Explorers got from Paramount -- releasing an unfinished film into theaters to mixed reviews and less than half its budget in box office returns (it didn't help that it opened on July 12, 1985, the same weekend as the very first Live-Aid concert, which was attended by 100,000 spectators and watched on television by nearly two billion people in 150 countries) -- leaves it as...well, not a blight on Dante's filmography, but as his most mixed effort. The treatment both he and the movie received turn the message of Explorers into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that's still relevant today: get used to disappointment, kid. Life is full of it.