Judge Patrick Bromley doesn't exactly abandon all hope, but he does find director Joe Dante's kiddie sci-fi fantasy infernal.
The adventure begins in your own back yard.
The only film missing from the library of director Joe Dante's theatrical films (not counting his segment for Twilight Zone: The Movie), the 1985 sci-fi fantasy Explorers, at long last makes its way onto DVD, courtesy of Paramount.
Facts of the Case
Three adolescent boys, spacey sci-fi movie geek Ben (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, in his film debut), über-brain Wolfgang (River Phoenix, Stand by Me), and loner Darren (Jason Presson, Lady in White), build their very own spaceship based on blueprints sent telepathically to Ben in the form of a dream. Once the ship is built, the boys begin to live out their dreams of flight—until an unknown signal from somewhere in space begins to beckon them, leading them on an adventure they could never have imagined.
Joe Dante is, without question, one of my favorite directors of all time. Not so much for the sake of art or skill; in those terms, his films range from (at best) competent to (at worst) wildly uneven (like his most recent film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action). My adoration for all things Dante stems more from the sensibilities found in his films: He loves the same old goofy horror and sci-fi films, the same pointed social satire, and the same dumb slapstick that I do, and he infuses each of his movies with all of these elements. From The Howling, one of the five best horror films ever made, to Gremlins—exactly the bastard-cousin-of-E.T. film that '80s audiences needed to wake them from their big Spielbergian hug (its sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, was less cinematically relevant, but a superior film nonetheless), to the surreal genius of The 'Burbs, to Matinee—the culmination of all Dante's work to date, and one of my favorite films of all time—Joe Dante has been turning out small works of equal parts chaos, charm, absurdity, and nostalgia for over twenty years.
Explorers begins as one of Dante's best films, and ends as one of his worst. It's his eighth film, made after Gremlins had turned him into a commercially viable director—a kind of "Spielberg Lite"—and it finds him trapped between his past and his future as a filmmaker. The storytelling is more mature, clearly showing off the kind of "inner child" sensibility Spielberg (some of which Dante, having worked under the tutelage of Spielberg for much of that decade, no doubt picked up) had mastered in the '80s, and combining it with Dante's usual in-jokes and sly references. It's too bad, then, that the director wasn't able to resist his basest instincts—or, at least, find a better way to match the two styles, the way he would go on to do in such films as Matinee and Small Soldiers. As it is, Explorers plays like a film divided—the expectations and excitement generated by an excellent first half are almost entirely undermined by outer space sequences that check their brains at the door.
The movie starts with great promise, as we meet Ben, an adolescent boy obsessed by late night black and white science fiction movies on TV, and who has daydreams about possessing the ability to fly or travel to outer space. He's the kind of boy that some will instantly recognize—for those of us who didn't grow up dreaming about being the next Michael Jordan or Sammy Sosa, Ben's fixations ring true. He's the kind of boy I was growing up—and the kind of boy Joe Dante was. That identification—with the viewer as well as the director—is what makes the first two-thirds of the movie work so well. It's Dante working with his fetishes at his softest; the wickedness of his previous movies has disappeared in favor of a kind of wide-eyed sincerity. Ethan Hawke, predating his eventual hipper-than-thou persona, is the ideal conduit for this sincerity—he's convincingly flaky, while still grounding the story in the reality of a kid who dreams of a life only known on the movie screen. It's a wonderful performance, and for quite a while, Explorers casts a real spell.
Then, an hour into the movie, something terrible happens: The boys are taken aboard an alien spaceship, and all of the charm of the film is violently sucked away. What was a movie about the magic of possibility becomes a movie about special effects and puppets, which all but destroys the mystery and wonder established by the first hour. It's as though Dante couldn't resist the urge to exercise his Looney Tunes muscles, throwing some brightly colored rubber aliens and a bunch of goofy sound effects into a movie in which they don't belong.
To make matters worse, the aliens are so obsessed with American pop culture (not all of Earth's, mind you—just American) that they speak in nothing but catchphrases and well-known one-liners. Talk about the total defeat of imagination—traveling thousands of light-years, discovering intelligent life, and establishing communication, only to find that the aliens are really just TV junkies. What could be more disappointing than that? Was the idea to appeal solely to younger children, who may be able to identify with a species that only knows what it's seen on TV? All that manages to do is (for lack of a better word) alienate more mature viewers, who relate to the characters' initial sense of wonder and not a bunch of obvious pop culture gags. What's even more frustrating is that it's only this older audience that will even get the references being made by the aliens—no one is left fully satisfied. Explorers sells itself—and its audience—short.
Paramount's release of Explorers is a mixed bag. Audio and video quality are surprisingly good; for a standard catalogue release, the 5.1 Dolby Digital track on Explorers is a lot more creative and satisfying than most big-budget, high-profile releases. With only two deleted scenes making up the disc's bonus materials, however, there is a disappointing lack of extras—most noticeably, the lack of a commentary by the director. Dante has lent his thoughts, opinions, and humor to several commentary tracks in the past, using the forum to speak intelligently and enthusiastically about his choices in his film. That he didn't sit down to talk us through Explorers is really a shame—I would love to have known what he was thinking.
In so many ways, Explorers works so well as adolescent wish fulfillment that it's a shame it isn't more universal. Dante and screenwriter Eric Luke should have left the "what if?" questions open-ended. The disappointing answers bring down an otherwise magical movie.
I couldn't possibly sentence Joe Dante—I love him too much—but man, did this one get botched. How about a "shame on you" hand gesture, coupled with a disappointed look?
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