Explorers (1985, Dir. Joe Dante)
Teenage Sci-fi fan, Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke), keeps having vivid dreams of flying over something that resembles a giant circuit board. He manages to draw some of it after he wakes up and shows to his classmate Wolfgang (River Phoenix), a would-be scientist and inventor, who agrees to try and build whatever the circuit is. The pair, together with another boy, Darren (Jason Presson) who Ben befriended when Darren saved him from some bullies, discover the circuit creates an inertia-less force field. The trio build a spaceship, ‘the Thunder Road’, out of the car from a fairground ride and other salvaged materials and fly in it using the force field controlled through Wolfgang’s computer. Eventually they are ready to attempt to journey into space to find out who has been trying to make contact with them.
It’s rare that I forget any movie that I’ve seen so completely that I barely recall any detail about it. This film, however, which I first saw when it was first released on video, is a notable exception. I’m sure the fact that I was suffering from such a severe bout of asthma that I would eventually be hospitalized a day or so later, might have had something to do with it; but I do remember not being that impressed with it. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in feeling this way as the movie completely bombed at the box office. I’m sure a great of this had to do with the way the film was promoted. The awful trailer — which I rediscovered whilst writing this post and which you can watch above — which shows none of the cast and really doesn’t give the audience a clue what to expect, and the original poster showing a BMX bike leaning against a wooden fence, with some kind of unearthly light behind.
It would take at least another 15 years for me to rediscover the film on a second hand VHS copy some years later, at a time when it had long become unavailable to buy, and after my interest had been piqued by shots of some of the model effects in a book about FX company, Industrial Light & Magic, who worked on the film. What I discovered, upon re-watching it, was a charming kids-build-their-own-UFO story that has actually improved with age.
The trio of boys have little of the bratty characteristics of the leads in either E.T. or Flight Of The Navigator (which I wrote about last time and has a vaguely similar storyline). These boys are more like the leads in The Goonies — outcasts, the bullied rather than the bully or the troublemaker. It also helps that all three of the boys are excellent in their roles. Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix ,of course, went on to other movies after making their screen debuts here, but Jason Presson is also excellent as the brooding, skeptical Darren; so it’s a shame that his career didn’t go much further after this film. He’s every bit the equal of both Hawke and Phoenix — whose performances here make it obvious why they went on to become big stars. Phoenix in particular, who is cast in a more nerdy role here than he would become famous for playing as a teenager, displays a preternatural ability for timing and reactions that few child actors normally have. We all know of Phoenix’s tragic early death, however I didn’t realize that Amanda Peterson, who makes her debut here as Lori, the girl that Ben has a crush on and who would go on to play other high school love interest roles in the likes of Can’t Buy Me Love, had also died relatively young, due to a drug overdose.
As well as the three leads there’s several nice supporting performances from various adults, including James Cromwell, who would become famous for his roles in Babe and L.A. Confidential a decade or so later, as Wolfgang’s dad and an uncredited Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as Ben’s mum. Plus a great performance from Dante regular, Dick Miller, who initially seems like he’s a threat to the boys plans, but with his final line reveals his character to be similar in personality to the boys themselves.
Like so many of Dante’s movies, this works because of the director’s childlike enthusiasm for his subject which shows through in the scenes of the boys talking to each other; Ben’s love for Sci-Fi stories and movies, the kid at the drive-in telling his girlfriend how the special fx are made and the aliens who learned to speak our language by watching television and speak in tv sound bytes.This is made by someone who loves movies and so much of the film is a love letter to sci-fi films and b-movies.
The beautiful circuit board dream sequences by I.L.M. are very effective and the creature fx, when they do eventually meet the aliens who have been trying to contact them, by Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall) are cool too. There’s lovely cinematography from John Hora and a nice hybrid orchestral/synth score from Jerry Goldsmith — one of his better later scores and yet one that few are aware of.
Interestingly, my DVD copy has two additional scenes, one of Wolfgang being bullied and one of the boys losing control of the fairground ride car they use to build the spaceship and it falling into the creek, that I’m sure were included in the film on my VHS copy. It’s a shame that they’ve been relegated to the bonus material here, as the first one in particular adds some nice depth to the characters of Ben and Wolfgang and it explains how Wolfgang already has the drawing from Ben’s Dream.
This marks the final post in our series about underrated Sci-Fi films but there will be more series posts in the future. In the meantime, if you love 80s movies and you haven’t yet discovered or re-discovered this little gem, do yourself a favor and explore it now.