1985's "Explorers," Joe Dante's follow-up to 1984's esteemed "Gremlins," is a cinematic embodiment of all those high-strung, imaginative jolts I had a decade ago, jolts I'm sure most of the population experienced during their youngest years. Only "Explorers" goes further than purely focusing on kiddos with wild imaginations - they live out their innermost fantasies, and the film's buoyant sense of humor and copacetic wonder are contagious, quick to turn us back into the children that we once were.
Among "Explorers's" best features is its young cast, who sidestep kid actor adorability and really and truly play their roles with the conviction of professionals twice their age. A surprise that two of them became big names? Not a bit. It stars a fourteen-year-old Ethan Hawke as Ben Crandall, a gifted middle schooler who dreams of someday visiting outer space - in love with films like "The War of the Worlds" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," he's less concerned with becoming the next Buzz Aldrin and more so with discovering alien life and exploring distant planets. Currently, his hopes and wishes don't seem to be so far off; recurring is a dream that finds him flying above a city that resembles a circuit board, which he considers to be a sign of something greater than simple imagination.
Scribbling his visual recollections down on a piece of paper repetitively, he soon takes his findings to Wolfgang (River Phoenix), his best friend who also happens to be a scientific prodigy. As expected, Ben's drawings do mean something - Wolfgang is quickly able to concoct a microchip based on the concepts presented to him. Not long after do the boys begin working on a spaceship, whose power is mighty thanks to Wolfgang's many creations. Days pass and ideas are refined; the friends very well could be the first set of youths ever to man a mission to outer space.
"Explorers's" premise is far-fetched to say the least, but our own doubts are not much of a concern when pitted against its innovations and overall good nature. It is, as mentioned before, the cinematic representation of a child's playtime adventures becoming as real as the back of one's hand, and there's something extraordinarily endearing about that. A shame Dante, one of the great sci-fi/B-movie directors of the 1970s and '80s, was not able to present the film as he wanted; convinced it could be a summertime hit, studio heads rushed its production so harshly that they dropped it into theaters before it was completely finished.
Even then, "Explorers" is a sweet, clever, and heartily unique family movie that makes the most of its premise and makes the most of its young leads, whose talent is even more prominent knowing of where their careers would soon take them. Dante will forever be a filmmaker whose fanbase is cult at best, and "Explorers" is among the most underrated moments of his fascinating career.
Explorers is an example of one of those films which tries to get young viewers interested in science. But the script itself is a little off in doing so. The scientific language enters the film without hesitation and viewers are given no time to adjust to expecting it, rather just getting it thrown at them. And as well as that, the screenplay is full of popular culture references which are more adult-oriented since children are likely to be too young to understand much of the humour. Some of the jokes such as when Ben Crandall exclaims "This is like 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' or something" are obvious but not funny. Many of them will just go over the heads of viewers, but I got most of them without finding a lot of amusement. There is a natural sense of energy in Explorers, but the jokes themselves manage to achieve only sporadic success.
Also, Explorers is a film all about concept but short on content. If one actually considers what happens within the story they can easily come to the realization that almost nothing actually occurs. It is merely a matter of how that nothing serves to keep viewers caught up in stylish appeal of the film.
The fun really takes off when the visual effects begin to take place and the titular characters go on an exploration of the world through a journey of flight. Explorers stops pretending that its characters matter or that there is any depth or innovation in the story and becomes focused on captrivating viewers through production values, and Joe Dante manages to shine in this area. His artistic sense in handling the production values manage to compensate for the shortcomings of the narrative for a fair amount of the time which means that the feature is fueled with the appeal of both imagery and a fitting musical score, but ultimately the insistance on fretting over a story which offers nothing outside of nostalgic value and occasional cheap laughs effectively render Explorers a rather dull experience which definetely stretches on for far longer than it needs to.
Attempts for there to be anything more within the story prove to go nowhere. For one thing it is said that the character Charlie Drake was supposed to return in the third act. Since all he does is appear briefly and foreshadow a mystery which is not explored, his lack of return leaves the story in Explorers leaves an all new level of frustration for viewers to cope with. However, the fault of this lies in the hands of studio interference which left about an hour and a half of footage and subplots on the cutting room floor. Who knows what kind of story is buried within the unused footage of Explorers, but studio interference ultimately left Explorers with a plot significantly more simple than it could have been and a rushed release. Since lacklustre box-office returns left Explorers as a failure upon its original release, there is at least some satisfaction that comes from knowing that nothing was accomplished by studio interference.
The story eventually takes off and progresses to a point where the main characters reach their destination. They go on an exploration of a science fiction set which is clearly constructed and filmed to maintain the same kind of image as the science fiction serials that dominated the market during the 1950's. The aliens themselves are designed in a similar manner, and though some contemporary viewers may not appreciate that as much as audiences actually familiar with what the film is referencing, the stylish appeal of Explorers cannot be denied. As well as serving as a fun throwback to the 1950's, the genuine 80's feel of everything merges into the equation for a fairly effective comic benefit. The sense of humour in the film and its genuine fun nature serve as a distraction for viewers which works most of time to divert their attention away from the thin nature of the premise for at least some of the time.
And I will also admit that the charms of the young cast in Explorers bring some further prominence to the experience.
River Phoenix gives it a decent effort. The actor who went on to be frequently compared to James Dean and nominated for an Academy Award is seen in a way different light than ever in Explorers, being a chubby young fellow with a bowl cut and glasses. It is a role that pins him with cheesy material and demand he flex his comedic muscles as a result, achieving mostly effective results. Occasionally you can see that the hammy nature of some of the dialogue is forcing him to churn out a character who is very far from who he actually is, and his greater talents would later prove to lie in more dramatic material than anything. Still, he manages to work the script into creating a legitimate sense of intelligence out of Wolfgang Muller while maintaining a friendly nature and a juvenile sense of adventure to match it. River Phoenix makes the material in Explorers work for him easily, proving just how much he can work his natural talents into creating making it his own.
Ethan Hawke is an interesting face in Explorers. While I couldn't forget for a second that River Phoenix was in the film, Ethan Hawke's debut performance is so far from any other notorious performance he has ever given that it is easy to forget that it is the same multiple Academy Award nominee from films such as Dead Poet's Society (1989) and Training Day (2001).
Jason Presson also tags along to deliver his own solid effort.
So despite Joe Dante's stylish direction giving Explorers an edge of 80's charm and visual appeal, Explorers is an overlong film with the pretentious shell of a story and far few laughs to sustain it all.