Explorers, by Joe Dante, 1985
Joe Dante is also one of my favorite directors of that whole period. I've yet to see a Joe Dante film that I didn't like. His films always at least attempted to be commercial, yet they tended to skew just a little bit more off-kilter than his peers, such as Zemeckis, Donner, and Spielberg, did, and that quirk appealed to an odd little kid like me. Dante's films were also brimming with sincere personal touches and his love for the campy B-Movies of his youth.
Explorers may in many ways be up there with Matinee as Dante's most personal film. It stars two children who look an awful lot like River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke as a couple of kids who are given instructions in their dreams on how to unlock the secrets of interstellar travel. Along with a third boy, they use this dream technology to clandestinely build their own spaceship and take it to the stars. There, they, you know, meet aliens and stuff.
Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix are both great in their roles. Hawke is the normal everyday kid, yearning to escape his life for a while and perhaps explore some uncharted territories. Phoenix is his nerdy best friend, who is a science prodigy, and able to translate the technology in his dreams into physical reality. There's a third kid, too, played by Jason Presson. I actually liked his character a lot, but he wasn't in it nearly as much as his co-stars. There were even some shots where the three of them were supposed to be sitting next to each other, yet the camera was only on the other two kids. I wonder if there was some circumstance that prevented him from being in the movie as much as the other two? Maybe he was difficult, or wasn't available as to shoot as much.
We also get bit parts by Joe Dante regulars, such as Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, who actually has three roles, two of them completely unrecognizable under some crazy alien prosthetics. And James Cromwell plays River Phoenix's dad.
Explorers is a spirited, adventurous movie for younger children and nostalgic 30-year-olds, and it seems heavily inspired by Dante's own childhood, growing up in the thick of the space race, reading comic books and watching science fiction movies. Though the film's third act in space is fun, I actually liked the parts of the movie before they leave the earth better. There are some great sequences involving them building their ship out of old amusement park ride parts, and testing it out in front of a drive-in movie theater. Even though these scenes had the fantastic elements, I could relate much more to kids scrounging around and using their creative minds to build stuff. Once they get to space and meet aliens, it's a little out of my wheelhouse,though I'm sure I imagined doing just that a million times. Which is really what the movie is all about: exploring that vast universe inside yourself.