Saturday, March 7, 2015

SF Watch: Explorers (1985)

As a kid I remember not exactly loving this movie.  At the time, I thought it was kind of boring and anti-climactic.  As of last night I kind of think that, like the ship the boys fly in during the movie, it's also a mess assembled out of used garbage piloted by people who have no idea what they're doing.

For example - when you title your movie Explorers (1985), you may want to try including the concept of "exploration" not getting hi-jacked briefly before coming right back home.



I don't mean to be so harsh, but, man...  Back in the 1980's, an era that brought us E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, Monster Squad and other movies about adolescents getting caught up in a magical world of imagination and adventure and maybe learning something about empathy and themselves along the way, this movie ended up as a bit of a renter after not really doing great at the box office.  And it seemed like it should have been great.  Kids doing it for themselves.  Computers.  Space travel.  Aliens!

It feels like this movie kind of knew what the pieces were that went into these coming-of-age movies, a genre enough unto itself that the 2011 JJ Abrams movie Super 8 sought to recreate the feel.  The films required a backdrop of kids not doing great at home - divorced parents, dead parents, grieving or troubled parents.  But the parents were present, if a bit distracted.  The 80's gave us kid rooms that were messy that contained things real kids' rooms of the era might contain like mangled comics, toys, posters strewn around.  Kids weren't particularly nice to each other, even as friends.  The lead would maybe have a crush on some nice girl who wore lots of purple or pink.  And, these were never the cool kids.  They were average, or maybe a little nerdy.

Sure enough, Explorers features 3 outsider kids - the romantic sci-fi nerd (Ethan Hawke), the science-minded nerd who other kids just want to beat the crap out of (River Phoenix in dad-glasses), and the Junior John Bender (the guy you never heard from again but who is actually better than Ethan Hawke in this movie) team up to float around in a pile of garbage inside a space marble and then....


The movie sort of half-hands you the standard bullies picking on the protagonists, but it's handled weirdly.  It's just there, it never gets dealt with (even NeverEnding Story spends 30 seconds wrapping up its bully plot), and the heroes deal with the bullying weirdly - like we're almost past the point that it bothers them anymore, even when some rando kid walks up and tears the pants clean off of River Phoenix - the sort of thing your typical middle school fight complete with bloody noses stems from.  He just shrugs and decides to go home.  It's weird.  And as it isn't ever resolved or dealt with (or mentioned again, really), it doesn't make any sense that it's even there.

In general, whether they get seen a lot or not, parents are usually pretty instrumental in these movies, and through the action, the kids work through some feeling they have about their parents - usually realizing their parents are humans, too, and not unknowable dieties (see: Cloak and Dagger).  We see Ethan Hawke's mom, but there's no story and no character there.  River Phoenix's parents are absent-minded intellectuals who are on screen a lot, and you get the feeling there's a story there, but they don't actually do anything.  And, in true 80's movie fashion, John Bender Jr's, mom is dead and his dad is coded to be a drunk, is never seen, and so he gets the only character arc through the story, in a lot of ways, but the movie seems to do everything it can to pull focus from that story.

But that's kind of the problem with the movie.  Everything in it feels like an echo of something that should be there, and it gets sort of outlined or started, but then it sort of peters out.  Not only are the parents barely part of the narrative, they seemingly also don't notice nor care that their kids are just running all over town on school nights.

Explorers is kind of an exploration movie for about fifteen minutes.  It's kind of a "we're building something cool and that's rewarding and of itself" for about ten.  It's about one kids' broken relationship with his widowed dad for about three.  It's maybe about Ethan Hawke stalking some neighborhood girl for about ten.  It's about kids overcoming their bullies for about ten seconds.  It's just a mess.  It basically hits the best part of the movie before the characters leave for space during their first test flight, and it never recovers after that scene.  It's just so strange to see a movie that seems like it had one good scene in it like that.

My earliest memory of the movie was feeling disappointed in the arrival in space.  On this view, the entire portion of the film is like a particularly unsatisfying trip to a restaurant - as Co-Worker Kristi once put it to me "it wasn't very good, and there wasn't much of it".  There's a lot of time killed wandering aimlessly around a space ship in scenes that go on and on, but don't move the plot forward (and seem lifted from other movies).  And when they do meet the aliens....

Gah.

I'll leave the designs alone, though I feel I should not.  But the point of meeting the aliens becomes oddly murky extremely fast.  It was like the movie had things figured out right up to the point where aliens were calling them to their ship, and then....  nothing.  Sure, there are these weirdly long bits where the alien Wak (sp?  I don't care) does impressions and waves rubber fingers and rolls cartoony eyes and just goes on and on, not being entertaining enough for what's happening, and not pushing the story forward.

Our focal character of Ethan Hawke has been telling us how this is The Dream(TM) and how this is the greatest thing to happen, ever.  But then the aliens basically act like the weird kid in class who watched too much SNL and wants to keep saying "Makin' copies!" to you, long after you both laughed at the reference, and he simply will not stop.  The female alien seems to want to bang young River Phoenix (a prelude to how the human female populace would feel after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and she affects a Marilyn Monroe voice, and it doesn't really work.  And that's before we get into the part that goes on and on about how movies (especially pre-1970's atomic age movies) suggest we'd be killing aliens on sight, and that says something....   that never... really... goes anywhere.  Except to maybe suggest that if you really dream about something like this your whole life, when you do get to experience the dream, it's going to end with an annoying person explaining to you how you and everyone you know is a fraud, so... yay, dreams.  Oh, also that person's dad is a terrifying drunk or something.

pretty sure I briefly dated this girl in 1993

But don't worry, goggle-eyed Ethan Hawke, because this will all also somehow make that girl in the pink sweatsuit think you're okay now, and she'll want to space-kiss you in your shared Tron Dream.

The end.

Basically, I kind of think affection for this movie is based around how closely it emulates better movies of the same era.  I don't blame the movie itself for being this crummy.  Movies this much of a mess usually have a story behind them that includes people in suits "fixing" things, which might account for why it feels like there are three or four scripts crammed together, frankensteined together out of cliches from the era.

This is entirely too much thought to put into this movie, but, there you have it.  Explorers.  Jamie, next time I say "I haven't watched this in years", feel free to stop me.

7 comments:

ncapp said...

The movie was taken from Joe Dante and released before editing was finished. Most of the work needed was for the ending, which explains why it's so muddled. Dante screened a re-edited version at the New Beverly last year or the year before, but I don't know what was changed.

I think it's a pretty bold move to have the Ethan Hawk's dream wind up a let down. Expectations are rarely met and there are enough movies out there that work out just the way people want. It's also pretty cool that the aliens they meet are just a couple of alien kids fucking around. Everyone always expects to meet a superior intellect/life-form.

I also dig that the bully stuff is just a part of life. And Dick Miller's pursuit of the kids and joy at what they accomplished is a nice moment for me (love that guy).

But Joe Dante is a top 5 director for me, so I will defend him to the death. The movie is a mess at the end, but I think it's pretty fascinating and headier than most kid's movies attempt.

mcsteans said...

Sitting through this movie again was worth it just to read this review. I remember even as a kid being confused in the scene where alien kid #1 is "entertaining", not knowing how I was supposed to feel about it. I think they were aiming for humor, but all I got was uncomfortable.

Lastly, I know it's a 30 year old movie now, but someone needs to answer for the female alien design. I really didn't need to dredge that up from the farthest corner of my brain.

Ryan Steans said...

I have absolutely no doubt this movie was taken away from the people who understood what was supposed to be happening. Joe Dante is no hack of a director (he's not in my top 5, but I generally like his movies - I will defend Gremlins 2 by stabbing all comers with a butter knife).

I'd agree that making Hawke's dream not what he expected IS a bold move, but I don't feel it actually works in execution. They still act like this was a great event, milling around at the end of the movie hoping to go back. I suppose it's marginally better to have to deal with annoying aliens who tell you your species is xenophobic and awful while doing their best Mel Blanc than to get beat up by mullety kids in too much denim.

Speaking of the thugs - yeah, I guess I get what you mean, but, as I said to Jamie during the scene "has this ever actually happened to a single kid anywhere outside of the first reel of a movie?" It's so cliche as to be cartoonish, so I guess it's forgettable - but it also doesn't set it up as a conflict - it just felt perfunctory.

I DID like Dick Miller's pursuit of the kids, but it fizzles out 2/3rds of the way through after getting enough screentime to feel like it should go somewhere that it does not. I get that the aliens might have been sending him messages when he was a kid, but that doesn't really match either with what the aliens say they're up to or even the timeline of when Dick Miller would have been a kid (1940?).

Anyway, different strokes for different strokes. My biggest complaint is that it feels incomplete, and, indeed, it is for exactly the reason I'd guessed. I'd be curious to know what this was supposed to be, because the pieces are kind of there.

JMD said...

What a curious feeling to realize that this film, which I saw upon its release in the summer of 1985, will soon celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. In fact, the film was released just a week or two after BACK TO THE FUTURE.

I remember enjoying this film, and shortly after seeing it, I somehow secured a movie magazine dedicated to the film. When it reached cable, I watched it a few more times, and I seem to remember taping it off of the television and watching it on VHS a few more times in the late 1980's.

It's been years since I've seen it, so I cannot comment from the perspective of my current self. You've inspired me to seek it out and watch it again, and when I do so, I'll likely revisit this post and comment again on the film's merits.

Ryan Steans said...

Well, as I prefaced my comments, I never particularly loved this movie, even as a kid, so I don't have any nostalgia for the thing. I just feel it was going for that Spielbergian wonderment and didn't know how to pull off the trick.

Matt A. said...

I watched this about 6 months ago for the first time since I was a kid, mainly to see if I could remember it. It seemed like I was mainly thinking, "Oh yeah, I remember this bit. Wait, that was from this movie?" Each part had its own charm, but it didn't really have anything to glue it together.

That, and I seem to remember Care Bear telling me who Rodney Dangerfield was.

Ryan Steans said...

Holy flashbacks. I remember the Rodney Dangerfield conversation.

yeah, I'd agree. There seem like a lot of ideas for scenes, themes and characters, but it feels held together by masking tape and lots of positive thinking. Likely Dante's changes would have fixed a lot of that, but it seems like someone cut it together quickly and hoped to just get it out there and forget it. Pretty clearly it wanted to be a series, but the studio wasn't interested.