Filmbuff: Rediscover 'Explorers'

By Morgan Leger
In the summer of 1984, audiences saw the release of director Joe Dante’s “Gremlins,” a popular title about a cute creature called a Mogwai that spawns evil, ugly monsters that terrorize a small town. While it showed Dante’s ability to engage an audience with a clever concept, the film also shocked parents with a heavier amount of violence than was typical for a PG rating.
Interestingly enough, Dante would move on the next summer to another family-oriented flick. “Explorers” did not do as well at the box office, but it has a right to have an audience of its own.
It stars a then-young Ethan Hawke, who has strange dreams that resemble the design of the surreal world in Tron. He tells his friends about the visions and they suddenly learn that aliens from outside their world are trying to contact them. Their response is to build a spacecraft and head into outer space to meet up with these beings. While on paper it does sound far-fetched, the overall execution is fairly well done.
For most of the film, we see the kids building a spaceship out of an abandoned amusement-park ride and planning their expedition. It’s clever and very interesting to see how three kids can take on the impossible and make it seem simple to understand as they figure out how they will breathe and how their homemade spacecraft will fly.
Eventually, the kids come across aliens in outer space, but there is something wrong. The creatures’ ship is really impressive, but the creatures themselves don’t hold up very well. While impressively designed and crafted through make-up, these ETs are ridiculously loony compared to the seriousness of the first half.
But what else can be expected from creatures whose only knowledge of humans comes from watching our television programs?
You heard me right. This batch of aliens learned about our culture by watching what is being transmitted to our personal boob tubes. I guess the idea is that we ourselves only know these things from movies and shows. How else do we know about creatures from another planet?
Kids learn about these things from their own programs and movies anyway, so the joke does work in one way; but it’s very weak to have such a payoff that feels out of place.
There is an interesting twist that deals with a “space pirate,” but it still doesn’t help to think about the straightforward tone that is met with such a “jumping the shark” moment that still manages to be at least entertaining.
According to Dante, “We never finished the movie. They moved up the release date and said, ‘Okay, you’re finished.’ We had never even had a preview, so it was very much a work in progress. I would do many things differently if I had the opportunity, but I have a feeling that considering its megaflop status that it’s not going to be a picture they’re going to want to revisit any time soon.”
This film was not a huge hit at the box office, or even given a “thumbs-up.” To make matters worse, it was released the same week as the Live Aid concert.
While this feature’s failure at the big screen was quite hampering, it later gained a new life on home video and cable television, so it did manage to get an audience eventually.
While the third act is lacking, the main focus of the movie is about the determination of three kids to go far and do the impossible. It’s interesting to see how they can take an idea that seems like a dream and make it real.
“Explorers” an underrated 1980s movie that is still worth a gander.