Explorers April 25, 2016
One of the things I miss most about my childhood is the way my mind so easily could wander. During the day’s most banal hours, I could escape into my own head, devise fantasy scenarios into which I could escape. An avid reader of the Harry Potter, Spiderwick Chronicles, and Septimus Heap novels, I spent my afternoons drawing otherworldly beasts on notebook paper with Ticonderogas and Crayolas and writing mini-pieces of knock-off fantasy fiction during recess in the library.
Explorers, Joe Dante’s follow-up to 1984’s esteemed Gremlins, is a cinematic embodiment of all those high-strung, imaginative jolts I had a decade ago. Only Explorers goes further than purely focusing on kiddos with active imaginations: they live out their innermost fantasies, and the film’s buoyant sense of humor and copacetic wonder are contagious, quick to turn us back into the children that we once were.
Among Explorers’s best features is its young cast, who sidestep kid actor adorability and really and truly play their roles with the conviction of professionals twice their age. A surprise that two of them became big names? Not a bit. It stars a fourteen-year-old Ethan Hawke as Ben Crandall, a gifted middle schooler who dreams of someday visiting outer space. In love with films like The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, he’s less concerned with becoming the next Buzz Aldrin and more so with discovering alien life and exploring distant planets. Currently, his hopes and wishes don’t seem to be so far off; recurring is a dream that finds him flying above a city that resembles a circuit board, which he considers to be a sign of something greater than simple imagination.
Scribbling his visual recollections down on a piece of paper repetitively, he soon takes his findings to Wolfgang (River Phoenix), his best friend who also happens to be a scientific prodigy. As expected, Ben’s drawings do mean something — Wolfgang is quickly able to concoct a microchip based on the concepts presented to him. Not long after do the boys begin working on a spaceship, whose power is mighty thanks to Wolfgang’s many creations. Days pass and ideas are refined; the friends very well could be the first set of youths ever to man a mission to outer space.
Explorers’s premise is far-fetched, to say the least, but our own doubts are not much of a concern when pitted against its innovations and overall good nature. It is, as mentioned before, the cinematic representation of a child’s playtime adventures becoming as real as the back of one’s hand, and there’s something endearing about that. A shame Dante, one of the great sci-fi/B-movie directors of the 1970s and ‘80s, was not able to present the film as he wanted; convinced it could be a summertime hit, studio heads rushed its production so harshly that they dropped it into theaters before it was completely finished.
Even then, Explorers is a sweet, clever, and heartily unique family movie that makes the most of its premise and makes the most of its young leads, whose talent is even more prominent knowing of where their careers would soon take them. Dante will forever be a filmmaker whose fanbase is cult at best, and Explorers is among the most underrated moments in his fascinating career. B+