July 12, 1985
Director Joe Dante came up in the world of Roger Corman – first cutting trailers, then directing PIRANHA – before his success with THE HOWLING (1981) brought him to the attention of Steven Spielberg, who produced TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) and GREMLINS (1984). So it’s notable that Dante’s Summer of ’85 entry EXPLORERS is another that (like D.A.R.Y.L. or especially COCOON) seems like it wouldn’t have existed without the influence of Spielberg’s films.
In an interview with Podcasting Them Softly, screenwriter Eric Luke confirms, “The thing that sold it, that Paramount thought, let’s make this was like the one sentence concept, because E.T. had just come out and been the biggest hit ever, so my answer to that was three boys build their own space ship and go into space and it all works, it’s not just a fantasy, there’s some scientific underpinning.”
And yes, the poster definitely says “E.T. had just come out and been the biggest hit ever.” It evokes the idea of EXPLORERS, but it’s closer to those early E.T. scenes of Elliott in his backyard at night meeting E.T. I can’t remember them riding bikes in EXPLORERS, and if they did, it sure wasn’t as prominent as it was in E.T. In E.T. it became a logo.
(I don’t think either movie has a skateboard. That was a bonus by the poster artist. Should’ve added a breakdancer too.)
The season’s other movie that EXPLORERS is most comparable to is definitely THE GOONIES, produced by Spielberg (and written by Dante’s GREMLINS writer Chris Columbus). Both are about a group of boys in their early teens sneaking out of their suburban homes and discovering an incredible adventure. It’s kind of counterintuitive that the one that captured everyone’s hearts in 1985 was the one about discovering pirate treasure, not the one about dreams of space flight and alien contact. But these things happen.
Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix made their film acting debuts, playing literal and figurative dreamer Ben and his computer genius best friend Wolfgang. Ben keeps having dreams about flying over a giant circuit board (TRON-like computer animation by Omnibus Computer Graphics Center before they bought out the company that did THE LAST STARFIGHTER), then waking up and trying to draw what he saw. He brings the drawings to Wolfgang, who somehow knows how to build them into what looks like a home-made iMac, to find out if they’ll do anything.
There’s a third friend who’s a little more passive in this adventure, but he’s my favorite character. Darren (Jason Presson, Wes Craven’s INVITATION TO HELL) is a kid who sees Ben getting beat up at school and decides to kick the bully (Bobby Fite, also in THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN this summer). Ben starts following Darren around and trying to get him to come over to watch THIS ISLAND EARTH, which he has no interest in until he gets home and hears his dad fighting with a girlfriend. Going to hang out with the nerd seems more appealing than going inside.
The computer that Wolfgang builds turns out to produce a sort of force field bubble that they can control. After tinkering and testing they accidentally get Wolfgang stuck inside it and flying around town and through the ground. Afterwards he’s less terrified than he is excited about his observation that he was immune to inertia inside. Darren suggests that they could build something to sit in and fly it around in the bubble, and he brings them to a junkyard where they build a shitty space craft out of an old Tilt-a-Whirl seat, some TV screens and other odds and ends. They christen it with a bottle of beer stolen from Darren’s dad, and name it The Thunder Road. And before long they decide to try to fly into space and meet up with whoever’s sending Ben these dreams.
When they do there’s a major tonal shift. They land The Thunder Road inside a large alien spaceship, which they then explore with surprising casualness – they’re still eating their snacks! They encounter a giant stop motion spider robot, get frisked by robot hands, and finally meet two goofy looking aliens in the cartoonish tradition of that one part in Dante’s TWILIGHT ZONE segment. Wak (Robert Picardo) is male and Neek (Leslie Rickert) is female, which we know because she has long eyelashes and a tuft of green hair, like Dante’s later creation Greta Gremlin. It turns into a bizarre hangout movie – Wolfgang literally takes his shoes off and lays around flirting with Neek, being accused of “loungin’ around with some alien” by Ben. They sit and watch Wak stand in front of projections of earthling television, doing a disjointed comedy routine made up of a nonsensical mishmash of catch phrases and celebrity impersonations he’s picked up on from commercials and Mr. Ed reruns and shit.
Ben’s confusion and disappointment with all this is pretty funny, sort of a precursor to Logan Marshall-Green’s “I wanted to meet them, babe” in PROMETHEUS. When he makes first contact with extra-terrestrial life and it says, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?” he stares for a beat before asking “What?” Later he says, “I don’t understand – we came all this way and we haven’t learned anything!”
The kids in this movie are in the naturalistic, relatable tradition of the kids in E.T. and THE GOONIES. One difference is that those Spielberg productions grounded the kids in current pop culture: Dungeons & Dragons, STAR WARS toys, PURPLE RAIN t-shirts. Dante recognizably sets his in the present but gives the kids almost exclusively his own childhood interests: WAR OF THE WORLDS on TV, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE poster on the bedroom wall, Doc Savage books, a mouse named after Robert Heinlein. It’s of course possible that these kids would be into old shit, but Dante also uses a scene at the drive-in as an excuse to make his own retro Z-grade sci-fi movie called STAR KILLER. Even the popular kids can’t escape the preoccupations of the Famous Monsters generation.
I loved both THE GOONIES and EXPLORERS when I saw them in theaters in 1985. In adulthood I started to kind of hate GOONIES, and retain a nostalgic fondness for EXPLORERS, even if it seemed more flawed than it did to me back then. Watching them both on their 35th anniversaries I can say that THE GOONIES is a more consistent, better made movie (and with better production value), but EXPLORERS connects with me in a different way because it’s closer to my childhood experiences and interests. I didn’t have any computer genius friends like Wolfgang, but I definitely had friends like Darren. Like Ben, I would lay on my roof looking up at the stars (with a notebook in which I planned to draw the UFOs I hoped to spot). Like the Explorers, we would sneak out at night, we would go to the creek in the woods, and we snuck into closed junkyards (there were two different ones). We would build “forts” and dream of getting elaborate with them, using pieces of junk we salvaged from somewhere, sometimes painting them (many of my my friends were much more handy at this kind of stuff than I was).
Of course, our plans never got very far, but the absolute crappiness of The Thunder Road made a space ship built by kids out of spare parts seem like an obtainable dream. I remember trying to figure out what to build onto the top of the giant tractor tire in the park that would obviously have to be the body of my ship.
And then the alien encounter appealed to me in a different way because it was such a weird left turn, and even back then I liked shit to be weird. The idea of them speaking in gibberish from TV seemed like some kind of satirical point about the oversaturation of… I don’t know. I was an easy mark for that type of shit, I guess. It doesn’t really work for me anymore, but I do still get a kick out of those crazy creatures designed by comics artist Mike Ploog and built by Rob Bottin, both responsible for John Carpenter’s THE THING.
Of course this is quite a time capsule of young actors. In just the next three years Phoenix became Most Promising Child Actor with STAND BY ME and THE MOSQUITO COAST, teen hearthrob with A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON and LITTLE NIKITA, and Oscar nominee with RUNNING ON EMPTY. And that was only the beginning, even though he died at the tragically young age of 23.
Hawke took a little more time, not even having a second movie until 1989, but that was DEAD POETS SOCIETY. REALITY BITES (1994) made him into sort of a Gen-X poster boy, his many collaborations with Richard Linklater made him an indie film superstar, TRAINING DAY (2001) got him an Oscar nomination, I’d say DAYBREAKERS (2009) kicked off his period as an earnest star of interesting genre movies (SINISTER, THE PURGE, PREDESTINATION), and as recently as 2017’s FIRST REFORMED you could argue he was still peaking. So it’s definitely novel to see him here at around 14 years old doing his babyfaced, squeaky voiced versions of mannerisms that have become very familiar. He was already able to convey the overwhelming sincerity that makes him still interesting to watch today. His character is the “dreamer” just like Sean Astin’s Mikey in THE GOONIES, but part of what makes him more tolerable to me is that I’ve come to love that persona in grown up Ethan Hawke. He gets wide eyed and says “It feels like a dream doesn’t it? It’s just so perfect,” and in another part he says “We should trust the dream, right?” I can picture him saying those lines in BOYHOOD. He actually does say something similar in BEFORE SUNRISE:
That Hawke sincerity gets some good laughs, like when he convinces more practical Wolfgang to leave the exterior lights on during the launch because “It’ll be cool!” As relentlessly optimistic as he seems, there’s also a scene where he secretly writes a “last will and testament” in his bedroom before the flight. His mom comes in and talks to him and when he says goodbye to her it’s with the belief that he might never see her again. I think that adds something interesting to what mostly comes off as a fluffy fantasy.
Darren’s sad scenes come from his circumstances rather than his choices. When a prickish teacher admonishes him for another D- he mutters “Just stupid I guess” to himself. Interestingly I think Presson, who was in LADY IN WHITE and SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK but hasn’t acted since an episode of In the Heat of the Night in 1991, steals the movie from those other two. He has this kind of resigned sadness to him, reluctantly telling Ben about his troubled home life, but playing it down (for example saying that his dad is “okay” since he learned to outrun him). He generally maintains a positive attitude about things, but speaks at a slower rhythm and lower energy level than standard child actor style, a welcome counterbalance to Ben’s more GOONIES-like excitability. And he has a very unique comic sensibility for things like complimenting “the suspension” on their spaceship or looking freaked out by Wolfgang’s hectic household. He seems like he would grow into a very laidback, agreeable stoner.
Wolfgang Petersen was attached to direct first, which may or may not explain the NEVERENDING STORY-esque opening credits with our point of view (and then Ben) flying through the clouds. Petersen quit when they wouldn’t let him film in Germany, and Dante turned down BATMAN so he could take it. Paramount convinced him to do it right away even though he wasn’t happy with the third act. (BATMAN had the same problem when Tim Burton directed it four years later.)
Dante has said that Luke’s original script had the kids landing on an alien planet and playing baseball. Luke described it in the aforementioned interview as “more of a boy’s adventure movie and there was more at stake, there were more bad aliens and good aliens and the kids are caught in the middle and they were trying to get a crystal that had all the secrets of Martian civilization.” He helped rewrite it to Dante’s idea of “pulling out the rug under people’s expectations… to say no, actually the big reveal is they are kids like you – and they watch TV, they watch monster just like you, they love science fiction just like you.”
That is, in fact, the twist ending, so I thought it was funny that my precious July 1995 Cinefantastique has a one-column sidebar story that opens with this sentence: “EXPLORERS is about teenage aliens who steal their dad’s spaceship and fly to Earth for a series of adventures.” Both a spoiler and setting viewers up for a huge disappointment! But I’m sure they hadn’t seen the movie to realize that.
At the box office, EXPLORERS didn’t have much luck. BACK TO THE FUTURE was still on top, followed by THUNDERDOME, then COCOON then RAMBO then EXPLORERS. Two weeks later it was gone, having made back less than half its budget, while THE GOONIES was still lingering.
But I would say it was more overlooked than rejected. It actually got pretty good reviews. In the New York Times, for example, Janet Maslin wrote that, “Of all the Spielberg-inspired fantasy films afoot at the moment, Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS is by far the most eccentric. It’s charmingly odd at some moments, just plain goofy at others.” She says it “frequently shows off Mr. Dante’s sense of humor to good advantage” and “also marks a new triumph for Industrial Light and Magic, the special-effects outfit that has devised yet another way to show space travel, and makes the flight sequences really soar.”
I’m actually surprised she like it that much. EXPLORERS holds up as a respectable summer movie, though: far from the best of its year, but unusual enough in several different respects to still be interesting to watch. I don’t love it, but it’s pretty cool.
Summer of 1985 connections:
Ben drawing the circuit boards from his dreams and then having them built is similar to how Doc Brown conceives of and creates the flux capacitor in BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Like THE GOONIES and MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, there’s a part where kids go down a big slide. This time it’s inside a spaceship instead of underground, and it’s a wide, windy amusement park style instead of round waterslide style. Still, it counts as part of the Slide-mania that was sweeping through Hollywood.
We have another peeper! In COCOON, Steve Guttenberg discovered aliens by watching a lady undress through a peephole. In BACK TO THE FUTURE George McFly climbed up a tree to try to watch Lorraine in her bedroom. In this one Ben stops to peer at Lori (Amanda Peterson, CAN’T BUY ME LOVE) through her window and says, “If I could see in her room just once…” When they discover the floating bubble he uses it to hover outside of Lori’s window and spy on her. He doesn’t see anything dirty, but what else would he be after? Darren comments, “She won’t be undressing this early.”
The alien Wak does a lip sync performance of “All Around the World” by Little Richard, not unlike Marty McFly’s Chuck Berry cover in BACK TO THE FUTURE.
This is Jerry Goldsmith’s second score of the summer, after RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.
This was Industrial Light and Magic’s fourth and final Summer of 1985 movie (after THE GOONIES, COCOON and BACK TO THE FUTURE).
About the only cultural reference not leftover from Dante’s childhood is “Thunder Road,” the Bruce Springsteen song Darren suggests naming the spaceship after – that’s from Luke’s childhood. But Ben has an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe in his room. That was current.
Ben puts on a gas mask and swings a flashlight like a lightsaber, so that’s another STAR WARS reference, like RAMBO (Cameron draft), COCOON and BACK TO THE FUTURE.
There are some very Dante in-joke/easter eggs – they attend Charles M. Jones Middle School (as in the animation legend Chuck Jones), the Rosebud sled from CITIZEN KANE sits unnoticed in the junkyard.
Just a novelization by George Gipe, the co-screenwriter of DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, who also made books out of GREMLINS and BACK TO THE FUTURE. (Sadly he died that September from an allergic reaction to a bee sting.)
In addition to Phoenix and Hawke, James Cromwell (who plays Wolfang’s dad) went on to become an Oscar nominee. Luke became a script doctor for Paramount, then followed Michael Eisner to Disney, where he wrote and directed two sequels to the TV movie NOT QUITE HUMAN. Most of his screenwriting credits are for cartoons: Tales from the Cryptkeeper, Gargoyles, Extreme Dinosaurs, the 2003 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dante followed EXPLORERS with INNERSPACE, which did a little better thanks to the worldwide box office, though none of his subsequent movies (THE ‘BURBS, GREMLINS 2, MATINEE, SMALL SOLDIERS) have made him hot shit again like GREMLINS did. Now he’s kind of better known for running Trailers From Hell and being a lovable grump sidekick on their podcast The Movies That Made Me.