A young Ethan Hawke, playing a starry-eyed dreamer named Ben, spends pretty much the entire third act of his 1985 debut, Explorers, with a look that somehow combines giddy elation with profound, even soul-crushing disappointment. That might seem like a contradiction, but his expression makes sense considering Ben has undergone a miraculous voyage into the farthest reaches of outer space and made contact with alien lifeforms, only to discover that outer space is kind of shitty, and the aliens are manic dweebs who look like giant green space slugs with phallic bodies and gross mucus oozing out of every pore.
They are, in other words, not E.T. (Though they do bear a more than passing physical resemblance to Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison’s beloved creation.) Yet Paramount undoubtedly had visions of that film’s record-breaking gross when it greenlit Explorers, then hired Spielberg protégé Joe Dante, fresh off the Spielberg-produced smash Gremlins, to direct it. In many ways, Explorers is the inverse of the earlier film: E.T. sent an alien from space to earth to bond with earthling children, while Explorers sends a trio of Earth kids to space on a homemade ship to interact with aliens.
The smartly cast Hawke joins River Phoenix and Jason Presson, who play, respectively, a scientific prodigy named Wolfgang and a working-class latchkey kid named Darren. Together, these friends stumble upon alien intelligence that lets them create a fantastical flying machine out of a rusty old Tilt-A-Whirl and travel into outer space. There, they eventually come into contact with aliens who resemble giant, mucus-covered bugs and communicate almost exclusively in the grating, phony banter of second-rate game-show hosts. The aliens have learned everything about Earth from movies and TV, and speak in a cheeseball homemade vernacular of catchphrases, one-liners, and inane commercial slogans.
Gremlins was an ingenious antidote to Spielberg’s dewy deification of childhood whimsy, and it replaced E.T’s saintliness with the deranged, violent anarchy of Looney Tunes. That description also applies to Dante’s equally clever entry in the Spielberg-produced Twilight Zone: The Movie, “It’s A Good Life,” where Spielberg and Dante each contributed segments that reflected their personalities: Spielberg’s was sentimental and mawkish; Dante’s was devilishly witty and irreverent. Explorers has a similarly irreverent take on Spielberg’s quiveringly sincere oeuvre, but Dante’s first two acts do such a good job of conveying the sense of wonder Spielberg commands at his best that the film’s third-act shift into goofy pop-culture wackiness can’t help but feel like a betrayal.
Before that third-act shift, Explorers is particularly good at evoking the quiet melancholy of suburban childhood in the 1980s, that wistful longing for escape and transcendence accompanied by the confusing, exhilarating rush of hormones. The film is at its most beguiling before it leaves Earth, finding as much magic in a dog chewing bubblegum as it does in an alien spacecraft. Dante is particularly adept at mapping out the contours of the world the boys want to leave. Presson gives Darren the defeated, prematurely world-weary body language of a habitually neglected kid who has quietly accepted adults’ untrustworthiness and life’s casual cruelty.
The film’s glimpses into Darren’s home life give Explorers a welcome grit, and the screenplay is full of nice touches rooted in Dante’s deep appreciation for pop culture, like Darren persuading the other boys to name their spaceship “Thunder Road,” after an anthem from another working-class kid who found a way to escape his grubby hometown. Presson is terrific; so are Phoenix, who gives his character an alpha-male certainty unusual for a poindexter, and Hawke, who is particularly impressive once the ship leaves Earth and he’s called upon to express a tricky combination of mind-melting wonder (holy shit, I’m in outer space!) and creeping despair (and it’s kind of tacky and gross).
But then Explorers sends these children to the farthest reaches of space to encounter what are essentially sentient television reruns, creatures whose worldview and vocabulary have been cobbled together entirely from stupid sitcoms and cheesy B-movies. The aliens’ obsession with trash culture is played for laughs, but there’s also something strangely monstrous and horrifying about it, deliberately or otherwise. We haven’t just poisoned our own world with pop-culture nonsense; we’re infecting the rest of the universe with our stupidity as well. In this sequence, Dante’s satirical instincts feel decidedly off, undercutting the genuine sense of adventure and fun he’s cultivated throughout the film. The film demands a payoff much greater than its heroes hanging out with some intergalactic Garbage Pail Kids before being shuffled unceremoniously back to Earth.
Explorers was rushed into theaters before Dante could work out the kinks or create a third act he was satisfied with, and the result is a strange, wounded beast, filled with wonderful sequences and homemade charm, but also confused and anticlimactic. The film still justifies its cult following, but it also confirms Dante’s feeling that it remains one of the most devastating disappointments in a career with more than its share.
Only a brief pair of deleted scenes, neither of which adds much to the film or helps with its third-act flaws.