Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 15, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1985)

6. Explorers 

Following the blockbuster success of “Gremlins,” Joe Dante was red hot for the first time. Supposedly, “Explorers” is a script that circulated around Hollywood for many years, at one point being developed for Wolfgang Petersen. When Dante came on-board, he was given the biggest budget of his career up to that point, somewhere in the area of 22 million dollars. However, post-production was rushed, as Paramount pushed up the release date by several months to take advantage of summer movie season. Dante had to quickly rush a final cut together and doesn't consider the released film finished. Opening a week after “Back to the Future,” “Explorers” was overlooked and failed to attract much of an audience. However, it would eventually find fans on video and cable.

Ben is a misfit in the Maryland suburb he calls home. He's bullied at school, likes sci-fi a little too much, and is haunted by strange dreams of flying. His only friend is Wolfgang, a similarly withdrawn science nerd from a large family. In one of his dreams, he sees what is a blue print for a circuit board. Wolfgang creates it and plugs it into a computer. In the process, they create a machine that can project an impervious, inertia-immune bubble into the air. After befriending Darren, a slightly more proactive outcast, the trio constants a vehicle that can sit inside the projected bubble. They are mistaken for a UFO as they fly around town before being drawn into outer space by mysterious signals.

Within the last few years, we've been experiencing a revival of the “kids on bikes” mini-genre. It seems you can blame “Stranger Things” on that, while the likes of “IT” and “Summer of '84” have been happy to capitalize on its popularity. The popular progenitor of this premise is “E.T.,” while “The Goonies” is often held-up as one of the beloved example. Yet a case can certainly be made that “Explorers” is an definitive kids-on-bikes movie. Shit, bicycles are even on the poster! As in the other examples, the film revolves around a group of young boys having fantastical adventures in their small, seemingly idyllic suburban town. They deal with bullies, unavailable parents, crushes, and suffer a loss of innocence of sorts. Perhaps more than the manic tomfoolery of “The Goonies” or wish fulfillment of “The Monster Squad,” “Explorers” exemplifies the Spielbergian sense of adventure and melancholy vital to the concept.

In particular, “Explorers” captures a very specific feeling in a wonderfully visual way. This is a movie about taking flight. It's notable that the pre-teen heroes of the film do not build a traditional aircraft. They do not ascend into the sky and heavens in an airplane or space ship. Instead, their initial flight is in a transparent bubble. Later, they build a spherical vessel of sorts out of trash they find in a dump. The boys fly upward seemingly of their own wills, in something they scrap together all on their own. It's pretty obvious that the film uses this as an elaborate metaphor for the joys of adolescence. That their youthful energy is so boundless, they can literally fly on it.

When first gifted with this incredible power, the boys use it for very humble goals. Like seeing movies for free at the drive-in or spying on a girl they have a crush on. This is obviously a result of their juvenile impulses. Of their inability to imagine too much outside of their small town, like how surprised they are when the craft is drawn into outer space. Yet that the technology encases them in a bubble seems pivotal as well. These boys are separate from the other people in their lives, kept apart from people they long to connect with. Sometimes its a girl, since Ben has a boyish crush on Lori, a pretty girl in his class. The boys have trouble connecting with their parents too. There are joys and sorrows of adolescence, which “Explorers” portrays accurately.

“Explorers” is about growing up but not in the way these films usually are. The boys receive the designs for their flying device through subconscious projections, the source being some outside force. Eventually, this same force draws them into outer space. It would seem like the some great destiny awaits them doesn't it? Instead, the kids have been summoned by a pair of teenage aliens obsessed with earthly pop culture. Ben is especially extremely disappointing by what he discovers. “Explorers,” ultimately, takes on the deeply unromantic but unavoidable fact that life doesn't live up to what you expect when you're a kid. That disappointment isn't just inevitable but it's a pivotal part of growing up.

These meditations on childhood loneliness and companionship wouldn't be nearly as effective without an impressive trio of actors playing the boys. Ethan Hawke, making his screen debut, gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as Ben. He doesn't just seem like a kid acting out an adventure here. Instead, you can see the conflict and challenges on his face. Hawke also has excellent chemistry with River Phoenix, also in his film debut, as Wolfgang. Before he became a teen heartthrob, Phoenix played this nerdy kid. While the most cartoonish part of the film, with his huge family and “talking” pet mouse, Phoenix creates a thoughtful and funny character. Wolfgang looks and acts a bit like a stereotypical brainy kid but Phoenix gives him a love of adventure that differences the part.

Rounding out the trio is Jason Presson as Darren. Presson never went onto the stardom of Hawke or Phoenix. Which is sort of funny since he's cast as the “cool” one of the trio, who defends the others from bullies and rides around on a mini-bike. Presson is very good at inhabiting that effortless sense of adolescent cool. Yet he also shows off a sadder side, as Darren's home life is unhappy, often feeling like the biggest misfit of the bunch. Dante also slots some familiar faces into supporting roles. Dick Miller appears, of course, as a helicopter pilot who spots the boys. He shows a sweeter side not previously seen in his prior parts. Robert Picardo shows off his motor-mouth abilities as Wak the alien, while buried under a ton of latex and rubber. Also look out for small roles from Meschach Taylor and James Cromwell.

When Dante came onto “Explorers,” he had the film rewritten quite a bit, including punching up the third act. Apparently, his main contribution to the script was a very Dante-esque series of pop culture references. The movie opens with footage from George Pal's “War of the Worlds,” which is referenced all throughout the film. Later, “This Island Earth” becomes a plot point of sorts. The aliens introduce themselves by quoting Bugs Bunny, as if you had any doubt about who directed this. The aliens speak almost exclusively in pop culture references, parroting back forty years of television cliches and advertisement-talk. Clips from “20 Million Miles to Earth” and “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucer” also put in appearance. Dante even re-creates vintage sci-fi serials, with “Starkiller,” a “Flash Gordon”-like movie within the movie.

In his fourth collaboration with Dante, Rob Bottin would provide the creature effects for “Explorers.” Bottin provides a very different approach to extraterrestrial life than the photo-realistic effects we saw in “The Thing.” The aliens in “Explorers” are super goofy looking. In many ways, they summon up classic images of little green men and outrageous pulp magazine covers. They have bright green skin, exaggerated lips, goofy looking eyeballs atop flailing stocks. Their bodies are fat, with spindly legs and bug-like tails. As cartoonish as the creatures are, they still have a life-like interior logic to them. I especially like how the mature creature has additional hands growing out of his head, or how their natural language is completely comprehensible to human ears.

While Dante might've added more to the film's last act, “Explorers'” conclusion is still a bit disappointing. The story doesn't move much after the kids arrive on the alien spaceship. They get a stream of pop culture references yelled at them for several moments, which is when Dante's love of this stuff starts to feel a bit excessive. After that, there's one or two dramatic reveals and then, well, the story pretty much ends. I get that the disappointment is part of the point but I think “Explorers” probably could've conveyed that feeling without totally sucking the air out of the story in the last twenty minutes.

Of course, this might not necessarily be the director's fault. There are several signs throughout “Explorers” that Dante never really got to delivered a final film he was satisfied with. There are obviously some subplots that were hastily cut short by the studio insisting Dante rush the final cut. Dick Miller's character was obviously meant to play a bigger role, as he reveals that he's having the same dreams as Ben. This seems significant but the character never appears again after the boys leave Earth. Apparently, the story was intended to address the universality of dreams and the collective unconscious, a pretty heady concept for a kid's movie. The subplot concerning Lori and Ben's crush on her is hopelessly underdeveloped. You can also see where the storylines involving the boys' family life have been cut short. Sadly, according to Dante, this cut footage is lost, meaning it's unlikely we'll ever see his director's cut of “Explorers.”

Most of the people who became fans of “Explorers” first saw it on video or TV. That's how I saw the movie. Weirdly, I saw the movie broadcast on the Disney Channel of all places. It's a movie that would probably be better experienced on the big screen or a nice Blu-Ray, where you can really appreciate those still solid effects and Jerry Goldsmith's soaring score. The movie has big crowd-pleasing special effects scenes, like the flying craft tearing though the drive-in or a fall from the upper atmosphere. These scenes are ultimately besides the point, as “Explorers” is after something deeper and sadder. Maybe that's why summer movie audiences didn't catch onto the film. While it has some serious flaws, it's definitely a touching and interesting film. [Grade: B]

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