Explorers is a 1985 science fiction adventure movie for children. It was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins,The Howling, Innerspace), written by Eric Luke (who wrote several episodes of Tales From the Crypt), and starred River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, and Jason Presson. The story is about three adolescent boys who are fascinated by science (both real science and science-fiction), and they build a spacecraft together and fly it into space. The film has a magical quality about it, a tribute to a childhood where children can explore off on their own, use their imagination, and have amazing adventures.
Wolfgang (River Phoenix) and Ben (Ethan Hawke) are nerdy best friends who love science and science-fiction (especially pulp comics and low-budget movies from the 1950s),and are fascinated by space travel. They get picked on by school bullies, but it doesn't deter them from following their passions. They meet a fellow kid, Darren, (Jason Presson), who is a little rough around the edges and thinks their science passions are weird, but finds kinship with them as fellow outsiders.
The film showing the home lives of the boys is an example of how some 1980s children’s films attempted to make their characters more realistic by showing their family’s lives being messy and unconventional. While Ben comes from an average suburban nuclear family, Wolfgang’s parents are German immigrants who are quirky and nice (played adorably by James Cromwell and Dana Ivey), and have a messy house with young kids making noise and stuff strewn all over. The home looks lived-in, like a real family’s house. Wolfgang has his own science lab in the basement. He makes “voice sensors” for his lab rat,which allows it to speak English by hitting certain pedals. The rat even says, “Go to hell,” at one point. The rat is named Heinlein, after the science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote many stories about young boys experimenting with space flight.
By contrast, Darren comes from a trouble single-parent household, whose dad is unemployed and ill-tempered (“What does he do?” “He hauls junk.”) Various kid movies in the 1980s would show kids with the following home lives: single-parent households (E.T),living on the poverty line or losing their home (The Goonies), arguing parents on the brink of divorce (The Monster Squad), unemployed parents, etc. It feels more like a real kid’s life, especially for kids who didn't grow up in “perfect” households.
Ben is having dreams when he receives messages from mysterious beings from outer space, giving him the diagrams for circuit systems to build a flying spacecraft. The dreams look inspired by Tron’s inner computer world, with grids and wires. He tells Wolfgang about it, who is the budding scientist of the group (while Ben wants to be an astronaut), and they and Darren develop their project. They create the circuit boards; have the same dream one night where they all receive the alien messages; create a bubble that can move at incredible speeds with no effects from inertia, hence using it to power their spacecraft, and put their spacecraft into effect, naming it Thunder Road, after the Bruce Springsteen song.
The flying machine is successful, soaring through the night sky, and it is a magical scene, of making the impossible dream a reality. The boys soar past a drive-in theater playing a pulp sci-fi movie; past Ben’s romantic love interest, a girl who he is unaware likes him back; and over a diner and scaring their bullies. Even when it mistaken fora UFO by the US government, it doesn't deter the boys from trying again to reach their mysterious friends and go further in their adventure. The scene even includes a sly reference to Dante’s previous film, Gremlins, with a newspaper headline as “Kingston Falls ‘Riot’ Still Unexplained.”
Dick Miller has often appeared in Joe Dante’s films, and has this kind presence to him that him immediately likable. It’s his well-worn, raspy voice and crinkly face that makes him very familiar in a warm way. He plays a US government helicopter pilot who spotted the spacecraft and boys, and had mistaken them for aliens in a UFO (their oxygen masks looked like alien faces to him). He is determined to prove this UFO existence, as he says he had seen a UFO as a boy. He’s not a villain, however. When he meets Ben and realizes he’s the “spaceman,” he initially has his instinct is to go after him, but when he sees the boys take off in their spacecraft, he says with pride, “Nice going, kid.”
The boys’ spacecraft,when it breaks through orbit, is then powered by their alien friends and sent at warp speed to their vessel. What they find there is completely unexpected, and the third act is a letdown after so much build-up and excitement as the boys built their spacecraft and planned their journey. It’s not so terrible, but it seems very out of place with the film’s childlike yet serious tone.
Joe Dante is obviously paying tribute to his own 1950s childhood love of science and pulpy science-fiction books and movies, and he does it in a way that feels genuine to 1980s children who are interested in science and old movies. Phoenix and Hawke were both excellent at capturing the innocent joy and intellectual wonder of their characters, and Presson was excellent at playing a cynical and tough kid who was happy to have real friends he could trust.
There was controversy with the film’s production, as the studio changed hands and wanted the film much out earlier than Dante expected. Dante wasn't finished with the rough cut, but the studio wanted to rush it out anyway and took it over from him, not allowing him to add in footage he had on the cutting room floor. They ended up releasing it on the same weekend as the Live Aid concert aired on TV, and the film was barely noticed and bombed in the box office. It earned $9.8 million on a $25 million budget. Dante has said that while he appreciates the cult love for the film from audiences, he can’t look at it because it isn't the film he wanted to make. It is an unfinished product that was released without his permission. It still is a wonderful film, but if there is extra footage on the DVD of unreleased scenes, that would be a treat to see, to see more of Dante’s creative vision.
Explorers is a wonderful film that encourages children to be creative, to take an interest in the sciences, and to use their imagination and intelligence to push further in whatever passions they have. It is a special film, and even if it wasn't a major success at the time of its release, it is still a magical gem of a film to many people, and that is what counts.