My Favorite Movies – Explorers (1985)

13 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of my favorite movie directors as a kid was Joe Dante. When I was growing up and while I didn’t know the name of the director, I watched a lot of his movies (“Gremlins,” Matinee, “Small Soldiers,” “Innerspace,” among others) and noticed many similarities that I enjoyed watching–goofy lighthearted fun, some dark comedy, referential in-jokes about classic cartoons, and good fast-paced entertainment (oh, and a Dick Miller cameo appearance in each one of his movies).

And the one I watched the most in my childhood was definitely his sci-fi fantasy, “Explorers,” about three kids (two of which are played by a young Ethan Hawke and a young River Phoenix) who are launched into space via their own homemade spaceship and actually make contact with an alien species…

OK, that premise does sound admittedly ridiculous, but surprisingly, this movie manages to tell its story in a plausible way (plausible enough in its setup, anyway). The kids are portrayed as real kids and the film takes its time to show how they’re able to create their own flying spaceship; the first 40 minutes shows how it comes from a simple discovery to a way of getting in touch with aliens who send out signals even in their dreams. Later in the film, they do go up in space and find an alien spaceship.
People are split about this film–they either like it or…I don’t think there’s anyone who hates it, but there are people who lose interest when the kids go into space.

It wasn’t well-received when it was originally released in theaters and that it’s grown a cult following over the years. What people seem to agree on is that while the setup is suitably serious, the payoff is just plain silly. And I would have to agree; it seems writer Eric Luke suddenly remembered he was writing a kid’s movie and decided to throw in a cartoonish punchline to everything being set up before so that the younger viewers will be amused. The weird thing is, the buildup actually promises something more than that, like something along the lines of “Close Encounters,” where the kids stumble upon something big. But they instead find a couple of goofy aliens who love to watch television and impersonate any Earth pop-culture icon that can think of. It is kind of a weird turn that this movie makes. I didn’t mind it as a kid because I liked the aliens and thought they had some funny charm to them.

This is going to sound strange, but I don’t really mind it that much. While I should give it a negative review because the film is kind of inconsistent in that sense, I…kinda like some of the stuff having to do with the aliens. It’s cute, it’s amusing enough, and I love Robert Picardo as the zany alien Wak. On the one hand, it’s a huge disappointment. On the other hand, it’s…cute?

I can’t help it. I have a real soft spot for this film. Is it great? No. Is it silly at times? Absolutely. But there’s something so inventive and charming about it that makes it fun to watch each time. It’s charming with a whimsical spirit to it; I like how it shows step-by-step the construction of the kids’ spaceship; the set design of the alien spaceship looks fantastic; and all three kids are likable. The payoff may not be what its buildup may have promised, and I can understand why people wouldn’t like it because of that. (Even Siskel & Ebert summed it up with a strong point: “One of the things you don’t want to know in a space film is that it’s less interesting up there than it is here.”) But I still enjoying watching this one every now and then.

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