There’s a key moment in Joe Dante’s heartfelt children’s adventure film Explorers when an extraterrestrial utters the iconic cinematic phrase: “The stuff that dreams are made of.” That sentiment essentially applies to Explorers as a whole; the film feels as if it were born from my childhood dreams, and I’ll bet that many others share this same emotion. This is an all-time favorite from my formative years, and a film that has held up so well through the decades because of the honest sense of love it conveys in all departments. I have heard and read the stories that Dante wasn’t happy with the final cut due to a rushed schedule and studio interference. And I respect his comments. I’m not a filmmaker, so I can’t imagine what it must be like to see a film you’ve worked so hard on to be sent out in a compromised state. But his sentiments have done nothing to diminish how much this movie means to me on a personal level.
There were a core group of films for me as a child that truly spoke to me, films like D.A.R.Y.L., Flight of the Navigator, The Last Starfighter, The Monster Squad, My Science Project, The Goonies, Cloak & Dagger, Dragonslayer, Legend, The Dark Crystal, Harry and the Hendersons, and so many others. But there was something so unique, so truly special about Explorers that it’s rather hard to sum it up into words. There’s a graceful sense of uncynical, gee-whiz-wonder in Eric Luke’s perceptive and wise screenplay, and because Dante has always known how to blend amazing special effects with stories that have a lot of heart, this is the sort of film that qualifies as total movie magic. If you’re addicted to something like Stranger Things, or really enjoyed this year’s absurdly underrated Midnight Special, do yourself a favor and check out Explorers.
The plot centers on a trio of extremely adventurous young boys, played by Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson, all of whom are obsessed with computers and inventions and sci-fi movies and video games. They all start to have the same interconnected-dreams, which inspires them to build a homemade spaceship, which they then use to blast off into outer space, where they’re greeted by some pop-culture loving aliens who have some interesting ideas about what’s going down on planet Earth. John Hora’s phenomenal, Amblin-esque cinematography busted out the lens flares and made everything look casually stylish if never ostentatious. Look out for James Cromwell, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, and Mary Kay Place in supporting roles.
Nothing is forced, the film has an innate understanding of what it’s like to be a 12 year old boy, the sense of discovery is palpable all throughout the narrative, and it absolutely nails those feelings of your first crush (lovely Amanda Peterson was the object of affection for Hawke on-screen, and whose attention was apparently competed for by Hawke and Phoenix off-camera, or so the rumor goes). Released in 1985 and featuring imagination-stirring special effects work by ILM and extremely fun make-up effects for the aliens, which were designed by cinematic legend Rob Bottin, Explorers didn’t catch on at the box office, slipping in and out of theaters before becoming a massive cult favorite due to the explosion of VHS in the 80’s. The masterful score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.