The world needs dreamers – people with their heads in the clouds thinking big ideas. We need people like this for without them we would never have gone into outer space. Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985) champions dreamers in a refreshingly earnest way that never feels forced and is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production and Dante was never allowed to edit it properly. As a result, the ending feels a little awkward but does nothing to diminish the heartfelt sincerity that exists in every frame. Sadly, mainstream moviegoers weren’t interested and Explorers was a box office failure but has gone on to develop a small but devoted cult following.
It’s no coincidence that the film begins with Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) dreaming that he’s flying through the sky and then over some Tron-esque landscape while War of the Worlds (1953) plays on a television in the background of his bedroom. It’s a sly commentary on Dante’s part as his aliens will be nothing like the ruthless ones in that film.
Ben tells his best friend Wolfgang Muller (River Phoenix) about it on the way to school the next day. They share a common nemesis in the form of schoolyard bully Steve Jackson (Bobby Fite) who enjoys tormenting them with his friends on a daily basis. Ben befriends Darren Woods (Jason Presson), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who helps him out with Steve.
Dante does a nice job early on of developing the dynamic between Ben, Darren and Wolfgang who, on the surface, are unlikely friends. Darren is a mechanically-inclined cynic from a broken home while Wolfgang is a nerdy bookish type that is ruled by logic and comes from a family of eccentric geniuses. Ben is the bridge between these two polar opposites – a nice kid from a stable home who isn’t particularly cool but not a nerd either – he’s a dreamer. He’s the glue that keeps them together.
Ben draws a circuit board he saw in a dream and gives it to Wolfgang who assembles a piece of technology that creates a transparent bubble. It can be resized, moves at incredible speeds and is seemingly indestructible. Over several nights out in the woods, the boys build a crude craft out of a tilt-a-whirl seat that allows them to all be in the bubble. They decide to use it to explore the galaxy for alien life. Dante takes this fantastical premise and grounds it in a kind of matter-of-fact realism via scientific jargon Wolfgang frequently spouts but without losing a sense of wonderment that is the film’s strongest attribute.
The three young lead actors are perfectly cast. Ethan Hawke is excellent as an idealistic dreamer that yearns to be a space explorer and live out his sci-fi fantasies. He avoids slipping into cheesiness by imparting a sincerity that feels authentic. Jason Presson is also good as the cynical yin to Hawke’s idealistic yang. He provides the practical knowledge to help build their craft. Finally, River Phoenix disappears into his bookish scientist constantly clad in a tie and suit jacket like a pint-sized college professor. While these kids are smart and resourceful, Dante doesn’t let us forget that they are still kids who have to face bullies, have crushes on girls and do their homework. It makes them relatable so that by the time Explorers takes a turn to the fantastical we are invested in their journey.
The three actors play so well off each other and are completely believable as good friends, each bringing their own distinctive personality to the table. Just watch how they interact with each other as they launch their craft for the first time. These are resourceful young boys living out their dreams. Dante includes all kinds of nice touches that fleshes out these rich characters, like Ben’s love of 1950s science fiction movies and novels, or Wolfgang’s chaotic family life complete with noisy siblings and an absent-minded professor (wonderfully realized by James Cromwell) for a father.
Dante pulls out all the stops for the last third of Explorers with visually dazzling special effects that are tangibly old school, like the boys’ craft that is made out of a hodge-podge of junk they found, and include some impressive makeup work by the legendary Rob Bottin. It makes me sad to think that nowadays this would all be done with CGI because the practical effects give the film a timeless quality. All of this visual eye candy does a decent job of distracting one from how jarring the last third of the film is from what came before it.
After writing two screenplays that were tailored to what was popular with little success, Eric Luke decided to work on something he really “wanted to do when I was a kid. And who cares if it’s commercial or not?” He grounded his script in real-life trials and tribulations from his own childhood, including an unrequited crush on the girl next door. While the character of Wolfgang was based on a scientific kid he knew and befriended over his extensive comic book collection, Ben was the one that Luke most related to and he also had friends like Darren and Wolfgang.
Luke was working in a Los Angeles effects house when his Explorers script was discovered by producer David Bombyk. He showed it to his associate Edward Feldman and told him, “Read this. The first 65 pages of this script are terrific.” Feldman read it and agreed but felt that the rest “went into a Flash Gordon-type adventure and got kind of hokey.” He felt that it showed enough promise and gave the first 65 pages to Paramount Pictures. Within 24 hours they bought it and Luke was brought in do all the rewrites.
The studio was interested in hiring Wolfgang Petersen to direct. He had just come off making The NeverEnding Story (1984) and wanted to shoot Explorers in Bavaria. Feldman felt that an American story like Explorers would be “very hard to duplicate those little American nuances in a foreign country.” He also felt that Petersen would have given the film “a more serious, dramatic look,” and hired Joe Dante instead. At the time, the director hadn’t finished work on Gremlins (1984) and was tired from making it and his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and wasn’t sure he could do it. Paramount was persistent, however, and Dante finally agreed. The director found himself drawn to “the story [that] exists to serve the characters. This is different for me: it’s more of a stretch. Although, the story has many of the same elements that I like to work with, there is more emphasis on the characters.” Once onboard, the director worked closely with Luke on script revisions.
For the three young leads, a nationwide casting search was conducted with Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson chosen to play the protagonists. Dante found that working with his three 14-year-old lead actors reminded him of what it was to be like a kid: “We tend to always romanticize childhood a little bit, but working with kids reminds you that it’s a tough period to go through.”
In order to realize that aliens in Explorers, the production hired makeup effects wizard Rob Bottin who started work right after finishing Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend (1985). Originally, Dante wanted the aliens to be puppets but Bottin felt that doing it that way would slow things down: “They’re going to want to pump this stuff out, yet these aliens have pages and pages of dialogue.” He wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and recommended they have people in suits – blending body makeup and wire-controlled appendages. He wasn’t interested in the typical men-in-suits look because “doing that limits you to all these head shapes which have already been done to death.” Bottin designed stalk eyes that could move independently from the rest of the head.
Dante was thrust into a rushed production schedule mandated by the studio and “if a scene didn’t work out, we would just have to think of another way to do it, rather than take time to get it right.” He also had to contend with script changes, which resulted in changes to the last third of the film due to “the expense of creating this otherworldly environment,” and only had seven pages of material covering the boys’ encounter with the aliens. Dante and his collaborators ended up adding material on the fly.
To make matters worse, the studio changed hands during the post-production phase of Explorers and the new regime told Dante, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” This forced Dante and his editor to rush cutting the film and what was released was essentially a rough cut. Dante said, “The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) … The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular!”
Explorers received generally positive to mixed reviews with most of the criticism addressing the film’s third act. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Explorers, which is lively but largely familiar until the point when it reaches its batty pinnacle, frequently shows off Mr. Dante’s sense of humor to good advantage.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Explorers itself is bubble-thin, but it glides by gracefully on the charm of its three young heroes and their vividly envisioned adventure in space. It’s also a truly gentle film, one of the precious few that actually is suitable for children.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The effects are ho-hum and the scenes are repetitious – there’s really only about an hour’s worth of movie here.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Unfortunately, in Explorers – the latest kids space travel movie – the human kids are far more interesting than the aliens they meet. Maybe the movie’s script is making the wry comment that it’s not so interesting ‘out there,’ but I doubt it.”
With Explorers, Dante has created a sci-fi film for kids but one that doesn’t condescend to them but rather shows the world through the eyes of its youthful protagonists. The director is one of the great chroniclers of 1980s American suburbia, from the Norman Rockwell gone horrible wrong of Gremlins (1984) to the paranoid comedy of The ‘Burbs (1989) to exploring its quirky avenues in the Eerie, Indiana T.V. show. Dante is a rare filmmaker that remembers what it is like to be a kid and to see the world through their eyes without dumbing things down or getting mired in nostalgia. Explorers achieves its sense of wonderment honestly with the help of Jerry Goldsmith’s sometimes wistful, sometimes rousing score that compliments the suburban atmosphere of the first two-thirds and the otherworldliness of the last third.
Dante has always had a subversive streak as a filmmaker and it pops up in the last third of Explorers when our heroes finally make contact with aliens. Ben expects to meet some solemn being a la The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and instead is confronted with two beings educated by American T.V., communicating mostly in famous soundbites. It has a bit of a jarring effect after the earnestness of the first two-thirds but one can see that Dante wasn’t interested in repeating what Steven Spielberg did with E.T. and instead present aliens that kids would find funny and entertaining. Dante refuses to resort the manipulative sentimentality of this film and opts instead for the sense of wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) only on a smaller, more intimate scale.
Lofficier, Randy & Jean. “Exploring Director Joe Dante.” Starlog. September 1985.
Lowry, Brian. “Eric Luke: Exploring His Dreams.” Starlog. October 1985.
Lowry, Brian. “Rob Bottin: Crafting Fantastic Faces.” Starlog. February 1986.
Sayers, John and David McDonnell. “Edward Feldman: Guiding Young Explorers into Adventure.” Starlog. June 1985.
Tonguette, Peter. “What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2.” Press Play. January 14, 2012.