If Joe Dante ever did make a masterpiece, you're looking at it. What it does right, it does better than any other film of its kind, and what it does wrong is still hypnotically fascinating. You know, like a car crash, only one with a lot of allegorical portent to go along with all the twisted metal and ruined lives.
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Eric Luke
With Ethan Hawke (Benjamin Crandall), River Phoenix (Wolfgang Mueller), Jason Presson (Darren Woods), James Cromwell (Mr. Mueller), Dick Miller (Charlie Drake), Amanda Peterson (Lori Swenson), Leslie Rickert (Neek), and Robert Picardo (Wak)
Explorers is the strangest little thing. It is, in a way, two very different films slammed together. To be a bit more accurate, it's a single (and, in fact, very self-contained) film, which, at a certain point, takes the hardest possible left turn into shrill, abject weirdness, whereupon it decides to spend the whole next half-hour double-dog daring you to declare the whole experience a vicious shenanigan—while you're left to wonder exactly what it was you did, in order to make this director hate you so much.
But let's stick with that "two films" angle for a moment, because that's the simplest way to explain what I'm getting at: that first film, which occupies the first fifty minutes or so of Explorers, is the best kid's adventure film anyone ever made, with each and every element of Joe Dante's movie machine working absolutely perfectly as our young heroes plumb the depths of the cosmic mysteries that screenwriter Eric Luke's laid out for them; and the second film, which occupies the last forty minutes of Explorers, is dedicated to laying complete and total waste to every expectation the first fifty minutes have cultivated.
This is the part where our critical lens of "two films" shatters, however, because it's where we have to confront the real truth of the situation: the divine first half of Explorers only ever existed to get smashed to pieces in the first place, because smashing it to pieces was always the point of the whole enterprise. And so we're left with the same exact problem we had before. Explorers: is it challenging, subversive, or just shit?
Opinions vary. Even my own opinion varies—and it's mainly dependent on whether I'm just thinking about it, or whether I'm actually in the midst of watching it.
Well, I suppose this is the long way of saying, "Jesus, that ending...", which gets us much too far ahead of where we need to be. So let's back up, all the way back to the beginning, and take a glimpse into the atypical unconscious of our dork hero, Benjamin Crandall. As he sleeps soundly against the white noise of mid-century lasers, Ben dreams of flying over city-sized circuit boards. There's something about these nightly visions that compels him to scrawl down all the details he can remember, and when he shares his amateur schematics with junior scientist Wolfgang Mueller—Ben's only friend (and the only kid in his class who could possibly make Ben feel remotely cool)—both of them are astonished to learn that they might actually work.
But when Ben comes by the next day to check up on Wolfgang (hard at work translating Ben's dreams into real circuits), he's joined by his new acquaintance, Darren, a prickly kid from the wrong side of the tracks with an abusive dad and a heart of gold. And so, when Wolfgang powers up the prototype, there are three of them there to witness the beginnings of what turns out to be the most important thing that's ever happened.
That is, in fact, a verbatim line of dialogue (italics quite definitely in the original); but Explorers earns its characters' hyperbole. What Ben has dreamed, and what Wolfgang has built, is a device that can project a spherical field of force anywhere in space, capable of being manipulated in three-dimensions by Wolfgang's computer, and apparently capable of carrying objects within it at any speed you could desire, without so much as asking Newtonian physics for its input. Of course, it also half-obliterates Wolfgang's basement the first time they turn it on; but when further experiments prove that even the sky itself is not the limit to the device's power, Ben has the big idea. It's time to build a ship.
Christ, that is charming.
In tone and tempo, in look and feel: it is flawless. The initial phase of Explorers revolves dizzyingly around the mysteries raised by Ben's dreams: what is this?, what can it do? and, most unnervingly, who gave it to us, and why? But, intoxicated by the thrill of their discoveries, that seemingly all-important third question fails to give them pause. Even Wolfgang—true to his nature, and sensible as hell—is still powerless before Ben's bonkers enthusiasm, not to mention his own barely-sublimated sense of yearning. But then, Ben really is just something else entirely: with something like a feckless suburban kid's version of messianic fervor, Ben senses that he's been chosen for his geeky virtues, and handed a mission from God—or, at least, the next best thing.
It is, in a word, Spielbergian, even radically Spielbergian, from the fundamental Close Encounters riff of its plot down to the beyond-obvious influence of E.T. (without which something this deranged could surely not have been made with a tenth of its expensive and surprisingly-durable special effects). Heck, you might notice that Ben's father is mostly notable for his total absence; and even our central trio, intentionally or not, winds up rendered as something pretty close to a de-aged, Saturday morning cartoon version of the cast of Jaws. Altogether, it's surely worth pointing out that Explorers represented Dante's escape from Spielberg's reservation, and Amblin had nothing at all to do with what Dante was getting up to here.
It is, at first, pretty damned Spielbergian in its tone, too. Explorers wears its heart on its sleeve for these lonely misfits, and it invites us to perceive the world as they do, especially as Ben does: as a grandiose fantasy waiting to be made a reality. Thus the pleasures of Explorers are inseparable from the pleasure of getting lost in its infinite possibilities.
Dante, if anything, might be better than Spielberg at this particular sort of middle-class alchemy: he conjures a truly fathomless sense of the unknown out of little more than a premise and the quotidian substrate of production designer Richard Boyle's exquisite backyard Americana, defined by its disastrous domestic spaces, and (especially) the trash-strewn ravine behind Ben's house, where the boys build their ship out of the literal garbage they stole from a junkyard. As they burn their nights away on their secret project, even the editing gets a contact high off these kids' excitement, with a sleep-deprived montage that reflects the boys' own state of mind, days and nights smashed together into an indelible mess of magical but only half-remembered moments. (It's a simple thing, but easy to overlook: the score falls into silence every time the kids have to endure their prosaic waking life at school, only to return with force when they can get back to the ravine. Yet what's maybe genius about the sequence is how the cuts back to the real work tend to fall right at the moments the exhausted children pass out in class, suggesting pretty cleverly how they must feel while working on the most important thing that's ever happened—like they're literally living inside their own dreams.)
That brings us to Dante's most essential collaborator here, John Williams Junior himself (and yes, I know he's actually older, and currently dead). I mean Jerry Goldsmith, of course; their third collaboration, following hard on Twilight Zone: The Movie and Gremlins, this was the one that made it a tradition. And, to mark the occasion, Goldsmith's score is this movie's veritable lifeblood, the emotionally perfect accompaniment to a film that rides the finest line between exhilaration and fear. It is, I am certain, the best score he ever did—no small superlative, given Goldsmith's credentials. And it's never better than in its centerpiece, the triumph of passion and procedure that accompanies the construction of the DIY spaceship, which shall be dubbed by Darren the Thunder Road—in an acknowledged nod to Springsteen.
Rad name, sure; but maybe that choice wasn't entirely arbitrary. After all, there's a little subplot here that explicitly points to the same basic feeling you get from virtually every entry in Springsteen's whole wrist-slitting oeuvre—that is, of drowning in mediocrity until you die.
Now, we know Dante wouldn't do any movie without throwing Dick Miller into it somewhere; but this time Dante's permanent collaborator gets to do more than shtick, which probably ought to surprise everyone. You could make a case that, structurally, it's a minor misstep to leave Ben and the gang's perspective—for Explorers is tightly-bound to our heroes, and the number of shots that leave their perception of the world is otherwise close to zero—but Miller's character is special enough to earn the fractured POV. A helicopter pilot, he gets involved when the kids buzz a drive-in—an excellent scene in and of itself—and as metafictionally-enjoyable as it is to watch our heroes accidentally smash up a movie theater, the effect it has on this pilot is quietly devastating. (No sloggy, awful Evil Government Subplot is this, thank God.) You see, forty years ago, the pilot was Ben: he dreamed the same dreams that have returned to toy with him now, as if he were a broken antenna capturing a transmission no longer meant for him. There's a discordant melancholy to Miller's performance, and there should be, because Chosen One narratives are, by their nature, rather cruel and oppressive things: the call to adventure, by definition, can never be fair. (Meanwhile, the song "Thunder Road"—being a Springsteen joint—is, as usual, about how contentment might still be barely possible once the prospect of actual happiness has been lost.)
You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright. And that's alright with me.
So maybe you see what I mean when I say that, no matter how Spielbergian it gets in the telling, Explorers is still always Dante, right down to the bone, and not just in the reversal at the fifty minute mark, though Spielberg could surely never have brought himself to do that, either.
No, it's in the little details, that leave everything just the tiniest bit askew. Take, for example, Dante's decision to deploy believable adolescent romantic stirrings, when we spend a few minutes following Ben's use of the sphere to overzealously stalk his crush. There is, perhaps obviously, no counterpart whatsoever for this sort of thing in Spielberg's filmography; in fact, this endearingly-problematic scene comes close to suggesting the Brian De Palma kid's adventure that the Master of the Macabre might've made, if you'd paid him enough money. Then there's the pop culture stew that Ben cooks in (Ben is, in some respects, close to autobiographical for the director, even though he didn't write it), manifesting in his character as a loveable but eye-rolling monomania. And above all, there's the style of the thing: the way Dante's camera moves and tilts, to emphasize the uncanny wrongness of this gift from beyond the stars, which is at least as treacherous as it is addicting.
So the greatest pleasure of Explorers might not be sharing these kids' joy as they prepare to embrace their apparent destiny. No, it might just be the excitement of watching three children play with fire—and keep playing with it, even when they get burned. And they do get burned, over and over: Explorers actually squares the circle that few other kid's adventure ever do, getting across the impression of genuine danger, despite featuring a gang of children who, obviously, are not going to die. And here, it's a danger that arises almost too naturally, out of their own juvenile compulsion to keep screwing around with a machine they would be the first to admit they don't remotely understand.
Explorers has the benefit of having by far the best cast of any kid's adventure, up to and including The Goonies itself. Maybe that was always a foregone conclusion, considering that Explorers' vanguard role is occupied by future super-actor Ethan Hawke, but the whole ensemble is excellent, each individual contribution a solid one—River Phoenix and Jason Presson take their archetypes and sharpen them into something just a little to the left of "realistic." (Particularly, real-life cool guy Phoenix had an avowed distaste for the four-eyed nerd role he was asked to play, and that spikes his performance with a genuine bitterness towards his co-stars, which seems exactly correct.) All told, they are funny, endearing, plausible without drifting too far into naturalism, and they're all rather given to talking around each other, losing themselves in their own bullshit, the way real kids very often do: taken as a whole, they are all you could ask for and more. But a Hawke performance that doesn't do something special is rare, and that's true even here, at the very beginning. His talent for understanding what his characters want, and why they want it (even if his characters themselves don't), is already on display.
And Ben gets exactly what he wants, in the end. When they have solved their battery problem, and their oxygen problem, they go where no one has gone before—and that's when whoever is behind their flight takes over. We have been primed to expect everything. There is the spaceship; the cod-Giger labyrinth of unknowable technology; and for a moment it looks like we could be heading somewhere profound.
That moment passes, like a wet fart, when we actually meet the brains behind this operation. It is some insane kind of brave, I think: to take on Close Encounters—and even better it—before revealing that, actually, you thought that Close Encounters was idiotic. Our alien hosts are outrageous, enervating cartoons. Trained in the ways of Earthlings by our pop culture ephemera—in a way, just like our hero—they inevitably talk TV (and at the highest conceivable volume). Robert Picardo, as the more gregarious of the two aliens, appears to have decided that this requires a rut in Robin Williamsland so terrifyingly intense that it counts as a kind of twisted parody; and, hell, he might've been right. (Of course, the other alien, his sister, wants to literally have sex with young Wolfgang. It's gross, but the whole thing's gross, on a half-dozen levels, both intentional and otherwise, and honestly FX artist Rob Bottin's creation of alien life might've been less upsetting back when he did Carpenter's remake of The Thing.) Then the other shoe drops: these aliens? They're kids, just like them.
It goes some way to redeeming what's come before; but it's damned hard to justify the sheer unpleasantness of it. Explorers goes gonzo, in a way that only Dante could conceive—I have some real doubts that it ever got this balls-to-the-wall in the script—and I can appreciate it, even if I can't describe it as anything less than actively embarrassing to watch.
...But then, that is the point. They are supposed to suck; they suck on purpose; our aliens suck, because we suck.
It's a monstrously savage critique of the aesthetic of science fiction, even when it embraces its ethos as wholeheartedly as any film has, before or since. It examines what's really happening when we dream about people in the sky who can save us and bring us meaning. That's Close Encounters. Done a little better, with a little more sobriety, it's 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Contact. More broadly, it's the same old song and dance that animates every religion and just about every supernatural fantasy the human race has ever conceived. But Explorers punctures the heart of the myth, pointing out a seemingly self-evident truth: that if there are people in the sky who even want to talk to us in the first place, then they must be like us. And that means they'll be lonely, and lame, and dreaming of the people who can make them mean something, too.
It is, in its grating way, absolutely brilliant. (And so is young Hawke's control of his face, as we watch Ben try desperately to convince himself that the full-on musical number the aliens present is actually fun. It's profitable to compare it to his earlier reaction to a sci-fi movie so dumbassed it would've made Roger Corman blush—wherein Ben is genuinely and unguardedly stoked by the brand of alien he'd have preferred to meet. But the really cunning part is that Ben's space hero, in the film-within-the-film, is also portrayed by the indefatigable Picardo, giving a camptastic second performance that asks, rather plainly, why we can accept some kinds of terrible but not others.)
Of course, the simple fact that there's an alien-led musical number at all still catches me by surprise, every last fucking time.
So, yes, brilliant—and also right on the border of unwatchable for anybody above the age of six, right up until the very tail end of it, which may actually be even more impossibly goofy. And yet it is, also, recognizable in its bittersweetness. For this is the moment that our kids realize that disappointment is the cost of dreams. What they have here were never going to be their cosmic mentors, let alone their gods; but they can be their friends, and that will have to be enough. Miraculously, it is.
It's a paradox: the utter childishness is what cloaks the maturity that lay at the heart of it. It's partly a paradox, I imagine, because it was also at least somewhat accidental: Paramount forced Dante (quite against his will) to release a movie that he hadn't finished. And, from what I understand of the scenes that didn't make it in—especially the scenes that, apparently, transport much of the silliness of outer space back to Earth, after our heroes return—they'd have added less than nothing. By contrast, the epilogue we actually get is a disciplined, even graceful thing—a much-needed salve for the wounds inflicted by the (anti-)climax that came before.
But it's not as if we have to ask for Joe Dante's permission to call Explorers his best work, or his cleverest, or even his most characteristic. The film we actually got is all about growing up, and how almost nothing is ever as good as you thought it would be. But Ben doesn't stop dreaming, just because his reality didn't measure up. And, in the meantime, what he's found are people who share his dreams—and, unless I've missed the point of the film entirely, that's the most important thing of all.