Looking at Explorers in the cold light of nearly thirty years hence, it’s hard to fathom that it was ever seen as a potential hit. This is a movie that deliberately undercuts the unabashed awe at the universal unknowns found in Spielberg’s mass audience-pleasing Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. A young protagonist whose science fiction-fuelled imaginings receive a deflating reality check when he finally encounters alien life; it’s the antithesis of the ‘berg’s life-affirming fantasies. The aliens are no more than a green-skinned reflection of kids the world over; shallow, pop culture-obsessed and borrowing their father’s car for a joy ride. Paramount no doubt hoped Joe Dante’s irreverent streak, which had translated into box office gold with Gremlins, would attract the same audience. But, further muddling the tonal mix, the director treats his trio of juveniles with complete sincerity.
Paramount gave Joe Dante the chance to do what he wanted with Explorers; Gremlins had just become a huge hit for Warner Bros (his previous film, The Howling, also did decent business), so this Spielberg “protégée” was surely a sure thing? Well, no. As Dante’s career has repeatedly proved, he is just that bit too offbeat for mainstream audiences. Gremlins was that elusive alchemy of his anarchic, live-action cartoon sensibilities and dark, grisly material (much more so in Chris Columbus’ original script). Paramount would have been better to bank on fellow Spielberg endorsee Robert Zemeckis, whose Back to the Future cleaned up the same summer that Explorers floundered.
It seems that Eric Luke’s script had been knocking about Hollywood for a number of years before Dante picked it up. Wolfgang Peterson intended to direct at one point, but his desire to shoot in Germany put the kibosh on that plan (presumably, this explains the name of River Phoenix’s character). Reputedly, Spielberg lifted E.T.’s flying bicycles from Luke’s first draft (so it was reworked to include the junkyard spaceship). Dante commented that it was a solid script until the third act, which fizzled. Once the kids got into space they “go and play baseball and go home”. Given the reaction of audiences (those who bothered to investigate it in the first place) to the pop culture angle the director developed with Luke, maybe the original would have been more palatable. Dante notes that he thought it was funny but the public didn’t. Arguably, there’s an issue here in respect of consistency of tone; perhaps it was foolhardy to embrace a radically different “reveal” of alien contact.
How the whacked-out third act would have fitted with the spiritual themes the director also wished to explore is probably another strike against it. Dante said that, far more prevalent to his original vision, was the idea of the “world mind” (this is tentatively explored in the shared consciousness the dreaming kids and Dick Miller’s remembrances of childhood dreams). Dante wanted something more cerebral, and notes that the last five minutes in particular bear the bruises of an attempt to fix the “message” into something approximating his intentions.
The issues that came with rewriting the script whilst the movie was in production were exacerbated when the studio changed hands. Suddenly the release date was brought forward, with the result that the filming schedule needed to accelerate. Then, at a certain point in the editing, the edict came just to stop and put the thing out. As a result, Dante refers to the picture as a rough cut. At one point, he had a three-hour assembly, and he never got the chance to hone it as he’d have liked. He refers to the result as a movie he likes but not the movie he wanted to make. The ramshackle fortunes of the production may go some way to explaining the different cuts of the film (the DVD features two deleted scenes that were in the cinema release, and the (lucid) dream ending with Ben finding their spaceship Thunder Road in his classroom was added). Dante has said several times that there is little chance of a preferred cut of the film materialising; the extant footage appears to have been lost.
There’s a definite sense that, when the film is no longer earthbound, Dante embraces something closer to the spirit of Gremlins 2 than the optimistic childhood fantasy of what has gone before. The force that has entered the dreams of Ben (Ethan Hawke) and made his meditations of alien worlds seem like a reality, proves a massive disappointment in the flesh. The film opens with Ben flying over a circuit board landscape. When he sketches it for science geek pal Wolfgang (River Phoenix), the whizz maps it out in his 128k Apple computer. Which then starts programming itself and summoning into existence a small globe (the proportions of which can be altered, such that it becomes the outer shell of their spacecraft in due course).
This kind of vision quest isn’t a million miles from the strange fascinations thrilling Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters. Ben has an expectation of wonderment fulfilled. So he cannot disguise his disappointment when a couple of cartoonish aliens are revealed as the culprits behind the psychic/subconscious messages he has received. The aliens are even more exaggerated versions of the comic cliché of the green-skinned monster we see in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (both TV and film versions). But Adams’ work showed its cards as a comedy from the outset. Ben’s disappointment mirrors that of many viewers; Dante goofs off, and the magic ebbs away. It’s what he did with The New Batch, where those expecting the dramatic core of the first movie were left wanting.
It’s a curious experience to be told to be disappointed (effectively, if we are empathising with Ben). Even as Picardo larks about in his alien suit, Ben can express only half-hearted enthusiasm for his antics. So, even if you’re on board with Dante’s gear change, there’s a hesitancy involved in fully embracing it.
One might suggest that the intentional nature of Ben’s disappointment exempts the film from criticisms of failing to engage with the audience. And I can see that argument. But, if you’re watching a murder mystery only to discover that the victim committed suicide two-thirds of the way through, you’re likely to feel a little short-changed. I don’t feel cheated by Explorers, I hasten to add. I think that, if there’s a problem, it’s that Dante hasn’t sufficiently reverse-engineered the structure so that the first two acts are more coherent with the third.
In spite of its allusions to hope and magic at the end, Explorers is basically saying there isn’t much wonder out there. It’s all the same the universe over. Kids are kids, parents are parents and the imagination is just that. Ben’s view of the world is filtered through his love of science fiction, so he expects the aliens to be amazing. In turn, the aliens expect everyone from Earth to be whacky and crazy and to hate aliens because of their diet of film and TV transmissions (including The Day the Earth Stood Still). Thematically, it works, but tonally it is at odds with a child’s expectation of stupefaction and astonishment.
Darren: How’d you get into this stuff?
Notably, it’s the diffident, not wholly engaged Darren (Jason Presson) who becomes the de facto face of how best to integrate these conflicting impulses. Earlier in the film he shows faint boredom with the fancy globe tech but, faced with stand-up comedian aliens, he is entertained. His character is the one with the troubled home life (“Guess he didn’t get that job”, he notes of his father), the street-smart kid who never dreams and who defends his nerdy friends from school bullies (there’s little that’s original in the characterisations, although the performances of the young cast are never less than engaging). He has no desire to spend after school time with Ben until he hears his father arguing at home. His attitude to the alien technology is not unlike Corey Feldman’s waning interest in Gizmo in Gremlins. Even allowing for low boredom thresholds, I’m not completely convinced by their numbness to the fantastic. Darren seems like an ideal role for Feldman (and perhaps Dante wanted him; most likely he was working on The Goonies at the time).
The setup of the film wouldn’t be out of place in a Spielberg movie, which is likely why he was (supposedly) circling it at one point. Nostalgic dreams of childhood (with a token gesture to reality with bullying and troubled domestics) are the director’s bread and butter. And it starts out looking similar to numerous ‘80s kids’ movies; the ensemble brackets it with the likes of The Goonies, Stand by Me and The Lost Boys. The first part of section of the film is amiable but, like the film as a whole, it has no fire in its belly. There is little sense of threat or conflict; even the investigation by pilot Charlie Drake (Dick Miller) is benign. This further testifies as to why the film didn’t catch on. It’s not a thrill ride, it’s a quirky, difficult to categorise adventure fantasy and the failures of those are ten-a-penny. I certainly don’t buy the excuse that opening against Live Aid damaged it; audiences just weren’t interested.
Apparently, the first act was originally much expanded. There were more scenes with Ben’s mum (Mary Kay Place, looking like she’s just stepped out of The Big Chill – which, near enough, she had) and scenes with his brother. Judging by the “finished” film, these excisions were wise, as the movie desperately needs any narrative drive it can get. Ben is the central of the trio; you can tell, as he’s given the love interest (Lori, played by Amanda Peterson). Dante delivers a peeping tom scene with none of sleazy undercurrents seen when George McFly spies on Lorraine in Back to the Future. When Ben, ensconced in his bubble, stares at Lori through her bedroom window, it’s supposed to be rather sweet. Nevertheless, it’s Wolfgang’s family who are serviced with the most screen time out of the supporting humans (“It’s not his fault, his parents won’t let him change it” notes Ben of his Christian name).
Heinlein: I… want… my… cheese.
The reasons are easy to see. James Cromwell and (a hilarious) Dana Ivey play Wolfgang’s parents, presiding over a household that this isn’t so far from the invention-laded Peltzer home in Gremlins. Dante’s distinctions between the kids are clear; the mundane (Ben), the disturbed (Darren) and the eccentric (Wolfgang). Dante has stuffed the Müllers’ basement with science fiction comics and novels, but the most striking feature is the mouse Heinlein (name after author Robert, no doubt).
Heinlein: Go… to… hell.
Heinlein can speak by placing his feet on the keys of a Casio organ; we hear him requesting food, or uttering oaths, in a voice owing much to the commissioners of the Earth in Douglas Adams’ books. You can see that the director would be quite happy spending hours doodling about in this abode.
Dante is never happier than extolling the weirdness behind the veneer of suburbia; he’s a jovial, Looney Tunes satirist who makes his insight into the flipside of Americana no less distinctive than the more celebrated David Lynch. This domestic milieu is usually a safe one (only The Hole breaks with this); decent but uncomprehending adults who lack the vitality and insight of their offspring. The threats usually come from without. In this case it is limited to classmates, but in other Dante fare we see the atomic bomb (Matinee), subversive gifts (Gremlins, Small Soldiers), all man of creepies and crazies (Eerie, Indiana) and even just dodgy new (foreign) neighbours (The ‘Burbs). Where the danger is pre-existing (Darren), Dante does not intrude on it and make us uncomfortable.
The hill above the town gives a bird’s eye view, and it is no less cosy and welcoming from that vantage point. Dante would give his affection for the suburbs full vent in the TV series Eerie, Indiana, but the closest he gets to the spookier side of kid’s fantasies here is the shafts of smoky sunlight gaping through trees as the kid’s take a shortcut home (Dante’s DP, John Hora, first worked with him on The Howling and they regularly collaborated up until Matinee).
Ben: It feels like a dream, doesn’t it? It’s all so perfect.
As mentioned, it’s the utter sincerity with which he depicts kids that distinguishes them from his pictures with adult protagonists. Explorers shares this with Matinee, Small Soldiers and The Hole. Ben is blessed with an unaffected naivety, such that it seems almost cruel when the director pulls the rug from under him.
Ben: If this is all a dream, then what happens when we wake up?
Wolfgang: I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
The conclusion seems to backtrack on this. With the Thunder Road submerged and the aliens grounded it seems that the adventure is over. Then we see them lucid dreaming again, this time joined by Lori. They are joyous, flying among the clouds. But haven’t they done this before? Isn’t the reality of what happens when they wake up a disappointing encounter with TV-obsessed aliens? The spiritual theme is shown to be empty and the soaring soul is punctured.
Dante didn’t discuss further how he would have liked to express his ideas but, as it stands onscreen, the kids’ enthusiasm for further forays into space seems more like the longing for a junk food fix (hanging out with joy riding teenage aliens) than a prelude to mind expansion. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, or World Mind, which Dante intended to expound, asserts, “no evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else”; evolution leads to psychic connection between all humanity, and ascent towards consciousness and God. It’s an interesting theory, but one that is undercut by Dante’s third-act choices.
Ben: That was the most important thing that ever happened. Can you feel it? That feeling way inside? What do you think? We should trust the dream, right?
Before we reach space, Dante meanders unhurriedly with his storytelling. The trio investigates the properties of the sphere; first in the basement lab as it shoots holes through Wolfgang’s collection of paperbacks; then, up on the hill, Wolfgang is transported through the air in a larger version; greater still, they finally take flight in their botched together “spacecraft” on a night flight over their town.
It’s during this sequence that they encounter a helicopter piloted by Miller’s Charlie Drake. Miller’s a likable constant in Dante’s movies, although I feel he may be a little miscast here. He doesn’t fully deliver the pathos of lost dreams that Drake is about (maybe it’s a consequence of the cutting of scenes featuring him; Dante says that much of Miller always ends up excised). Still, when he witnesses the craft set off for space his “Nice going, kid” contains the wistful recognition of what he was never able to experience.
It’s surely Dante’s intention (muffled) to inform us that the kids only make this (evolutionary) leap because they do it as one. Following their test flight, and brush with Drake, Wolfgang and Darren are somewhat disaffected. The quest might end there (as I said, I’m not completely convinced by this; it would be like the kids in Chronicle not bothering to use their special powers any more). It’s only because they too take to the skies in a joint lucid dream that their determination is renewed; the nascent noosphere is expanding among them. Drake was willing to make such a leap, but he was ahead of his time. With no one to take the journey with him, his potential went untapped.
Ben: I’ve waited all my life to say this. We come in peace.
Even before they meet the goofball aliens, the spaceship environment suggests something less than exotic. Darren notes, “It smells in here” (he made the same comment of Wolfgang’s basement). There’s no sense of grandeur (indeed, the swirling dry ice nestling around metallic objects seems like an oblique visual reference to the rather awesome crashed ship in Alien). Ben still hopes against hope, even when confronted by an alien.
Ben: It’s probably not English. It’s probably just an alien language that sounds like English.
Dante regular Robert Picardo, who also plays Starkiller in the earlier Drive-In movie sequence, plays Wak. As with Gizmo and the rabbit in The Twilight Zone movie, Wak, his sister Neek (Leslie Rickert) and their father (Frank Welker, who supplied Dante with Mogwai and Gremlin voices the year before) are cartoons made flesh (or prosthetic). They’re hyper-stylised versions of ’50s bug-eyed monster, shoved through a Chuck Jones machine.
Wolfgang: They know all about us, from watching this stuff.
As Wolfgang says, they get all their information about the world from TV shows. It’s a cackling riff on the omniscient alien force, wise beyond human potential.
Ben: But this is just the movies. This isn’t the way we really are.
Wak and Neek also think humans hate aliens, on the reasonable evidence of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Indeed, James Cameron would double back and present a very serious-minded (does he have any other mode?) version of Explorers with The Abyss Special Edition. Here, Ed Harris is shown the suffering and devastation inflicted by humanity as the aliens enact a Day-style conflagration of poised tsunamis across the planet.
Ben: Your people have been visiting our planet since ancient times, and now you’re checking up on us. Right?
Every assumption that Ben, and science-fiction novels generally, have of aliens is mercilessly poked by Dante. These aliens haven’t even visited Earth because of the germs (a nod to the deus-ex-machina ending of War of the Worlds, of which Dante shows clips).
Wak: Germs. Germs. They can cause colds, bad breath, diarrhoea. Germs that flourish in your family bathroom.
Wak’s only interested in showing off to the kids he’s just met, while his sister is predictably obsessed with boys (Wolfgang comments, “She’s incredibly intelligent. Besides, she kind of likes me”). And, before you know it, dad’s arrived to send the kids home (Ben: You stole your dad’s car?). He’s a giant semi-silhouetted figure with hands for ears shouting and raving (Darren: Boy, and I thought my dad was tough), “Wolfgang? Wolfgang? Who the hell is Wolfgang?”
Wak: We didn’t even get to tell you the secrets of the Universe.
Yes, Dante even rubs it in! As if these unruly youngsters had anything profound to say. This is the kind of post-modern riffing that infuses much of Dante’s work, parody suffused with self-reflexivity. But it’s nothing new to the comedy arena; we see it in everything from the Marx Brothers to Bob Hope. Dante can’t resist; it’s such a rarity in a movie world where, outside of crappy spoofs, verisimilitude is the Holy Grail. All-importantly there’s a presiding intelligence over the way Dante uses it. In the original theatrical cut Wak broke the fourth wall during the credits, noting that audience members were still in the cinema because he could smell the popcorn (see also the film projector “breaking down” in Gremlins 2).
Wak: Listen, I watched four episodes of Lassie before I figure out why the hairy kid never spoke.
The visuals during Waz’s routine are Dante at his delirious best, a fuzzy cascade of static and TV/film footage as Wak mimes and struts. The bombardment of references is too effusive to list, but includes the likes Mr. Ed, Tarzan, Bogart, W.C. Fields and Little Richard.
Dante is at bliss in his own playground when give a chance to vent his encyclopaedic film knowledge. His movies are, at very least, always a pleasure for their in-jokes. Ben’s instructions for the alien device parallel Dr Meacham’s in This Island Earth (Ben has just received a video tape of the film). He compares the alien’s brain booster to a device in Forbidden Planet. One of the kids pretends his torch is a lightsabre. Arriving on the spaceship we hear “They’re he-re” (Poltergeist). The kids attend Charles M Jones High School. The newspaper read by Miller not only references the classic explain-away of UFO sightings (“UFO Scare? Or Just Swamp Gas?”) but Gremlins (“Kingston Falls “Riot” Still Unexplained”).
Intentional or otherwise, imagery also suggests genre movies of the same era. The circuit landscape evokes the recent TRON, the Peter Pan/Superman flying sequences also parallel Gilliam’s fantasy escape in Brazil, and the junk spaceship recalls a much more benevolent version of alien life to The Thing.
But Dante has most fun with his Drive-In movie, Starkiller. The director would scratch his homage itch to even greater delight with MANT! in Matinee, but here he nails the so-bad-it’s-a-scream crappiness of these movies. Anyone familiar with the average reaction to a space opera will appreciate Wolfgang’s uber-geek dismissal (“Explosions in space? It’s impossible”) or the reaction of an audience member to the Thunder Road flying by the screen (“That looks so fake”). Here’s a selection of choice Robert Picardo dialogue:
Starkiller: Bloodshed is my life.
Starkiller: Now is the time for destruction!
Starkiller: May the power be with us, if they attack again. What they will not touch, I will conquer.
Starkiller: Burn in hell, alien maggots. You shall not possess out women, slime-bred vermin!
Starkiller: He was like my father. Do you see what I mean?
Girlfriend: He was my father.
This was a prestigious production, with ILM furnishing the effects. Generally, they hold up, with only the occasional flight shot selling the illusion short. The helicopter encounter is particularly impressive. And regular Dante composer Jerry Goldsmith contributes an expectedly good score, traversing wonder and parody depending on the scene.
Both Hawke and Phoenix made their movie debuts. Hawke had never acted before, and wasn’t even auditioning. He brings a nervy innocence that would be seen to more pronounced effect in Dead Poets Society. Phoenix’s geek is atypical casting; Dante has recounted how cool kid River was akin to Clark Kent, slipping out of his natural persona. Presson is also very good, but appears to have given up acting in the late ‘90s. Dante regular Picardo, possibly seen to best effect in the director’s subsequent film Innerspace, improvised many of Wak’s lines.
Dante observed that an episode of Amazing Stories did a similar plot to Explorers in only half an hour. Certainly, when I revisited the movie one of my thoughts was that the twist of the third act is very similar to the sort of thing you’d expect from an anthology series. Stretched to feature length. Yet recognising the failures of Explorers is no impediment to savouring its successes. As ever with Dante, there’s a uniqueness of vision and joie de vivre that are irresistible. It may have been a miserable experience for him making Explorers, and it may be that his big theme goes under-developed, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie willing to take a comparable trajectory. That a major studio picture changes direction and tone so completely is something of a miraculous feat. You’re slightly stunned that he was enabled to do that. It’s both Explorers’ strength and its weakness.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.