Explorers (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joe Dante
Produced by David Bombyk
Edward S. Feldman
Written by Eric Luke
Starring Ethan Hawke
River Phoenix
Jason Presson
Amanda Peterson
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography John Hora
Edited by Tina Hirsch
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
July 12, 1985
Running time
Theatrical cut:
109 minutes
Home video cut:
106 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20–25 million[1][2]
Box office $9,873,044[3]

Explorers is a 1985 family-oriented science-fiction fantasy film written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante. The film stars Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix (in their film debuts) as teenage schoolboys who build a spacecraft to explore outer space. The special effects in the movie were produced by Industrial Light & Magic, with make-up effects by Rob Bottin.

Rushed into production, the film was never properly finished. Dante revealed that the studio demanded that he stop editing and rush for a July release where it was overshadowed by the Live Aid concert.[4] Despite being a box office flop upon its release, it attracted a cult following when it was later released on VHS.[5]


Ben (Ethan Hawke) begins having vivid dreams observing a circuit board while flying overhead. Every night, he wakes from his dream and draws a little more on it, confiding in his friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix). At school, Ben develops a crush on Lori Swenson though she does not socialize with Ben or Wolfgang despite her apparent returning of his attraction. One day they meet Darren (Jason Presson) and share their findings for a circuit board, which they put into effect. The chip creates a bubble that surrounds a pre-determined area which seems capable of moving at incredible speeds and incredible distance with ease, with no ill-effects from inertia, as Wolfgang involuntarily discovers. They construct a rudimentary craft out of an abandoned tilt-a-whirl seat and begin to experiment with it. Their experiments also alert the US Government who begin spying on the area for an unidentified flying object.

After receiving more dreams about the circuit, the boys unlock a key to unlimited and sustainable oxygen, which could be used for longer flights, as currently they are limited to the amounts a typical oxygen tank can hold. They put the plan into effect and intend to use the ship they dubbed Thunder Road to explore the galaxy in search of alien life. After escaping the authorities, the boys take off, but as soon as they break Earth's orbit something overrides their computer control and sends them propelling through space. They are pulled aboard an alien vessel, after venturing out of their ship, the group splits up and eventually encounters Wak and Neek; two green-skinned alien creatures and their pet. After spending time with them and having fun, their ship is intercepted by an even larger vessel and, feigning an alien attack, Wak insists the boys leave quickly. They encounter a much larger alien bearing a close resemblance to the other two and it's discovered that Wak and Neek are brother and sister and that they had taken their father's vessel out for a "joy ride" sending the dreams to the boys in the hopes of meeting humans. Transmissions of old black and white movies have kept the alien populations at a distance due to the humans' depicted violent tendencies toward alien life, but Wak and Neek rebelled.

After being forced back to their own vessel, the boys are sent home and crash land in their neighborhood lake. They escape before the ship sinks to the bottom, stranding them back on Earth without the circuits or the means to continue their explorations. Several weeks later, Ben manages to work up the nerve to talk to Lori, and that night as he dreams, he sees another circuit model. But this time he is joined by Wolfgang, Darren and Lori who proclaim that the circuitry is much more advanced than before, and it could take a very long time to make. The film ends with a suspicion that they will try again.



A rumor persists that the script for Explorers had been circulating Hollywood offices for years before it was made. A story came from people who worked in the effects industry at the time that Steven Spielberg was approached to produce the film but declined, but he was intrigued by the concept of "children flying through the sky on bicycles" and implemented that in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Explorers would eventually change its own use of the concept after E.T.'s success.[6] The film was originally to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen having initially impressed Paramount executives with his family-targeted The NeverEnding Story. Petersen wanted to film it in his native Germany. The studio decided to settle in the States with an American director and Petersen was not long after commissioned by 20th Century Fox to take over the production of Enemy Mine. "The funny thing about it is that when I was first given the script, I was coming off Gremlins and in a rare point in my career I was like 'hey, let's get this guy,'" said Dante during a Q&A and screening of the film in 2008. Dante liked what he read but didn't feel there was a third act. "At the end when the kids went to the planet, they go and play baseball. That was the plot. It seemed that wasn't quite enough." While discussing the script with Paramount executives, they said "we can work on it while we're making the picture." Dante and the writer, Eric Luke, were "improvising what they were going to do" while the film was being made.[4]

Both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix make their feature film débuts. Phoenix, who had grown up in communes in South America, was somewhat unfamiliar with popular culture of North America. During rehearsals it became a running joke when he would attempt scripted well-known words and phrases and usually pronounce them incorrectly. Phoenix was originally considered to play Darren, but when Dante chose Jason Presson to play him, Dante thought he was good enough to play another role so he cast him against type as the nerdy Wolfgang.[4] Cherie Currie was considered for a part but, according to her autobiography, she was in the throes of drug dependency and couldn't even make it to a meeting.[7]

"The studio changed hands in the middle of production, and they decided they needed the movie much quicker than we thought," said Dante. "So we shot the picture under very hurried auspices [sic]. The paint on the sets was literally wet and when the kids stepped into the spaceship they sunk into cement because it wasn't dry."'[4] During the dreams when the children fly over the circuit board, some of the camera angles and moves are meant to mimic the flight to Neverland from Peter Pan. When Robert Picardo was in full makeup and costume as the aliens, Wak and his father, his mouth was the only part of him not completely covered (though his mouth was made up to blend in with the faces of the creatures).

"We came up with sort of a pop culture angle on it, that we thought would be funny... audiences didn't particularly," said Dante.[4] The film contains various references to science fiction features, new and old, and much more when the children meet the aliens. References include when the boys are hovering over the drive-in, the movie that is playing stars a space hero named Starkiller, named after George Lucas' original last name for Luke Skywalker. Ethan Hawke's character, Ben, is obsessed with aliens and movies surrounding them, and the two movies he watches during the film are This Island Earth and The War of the Worlds. The children attend the "Charles M. Jones Junior High School", named after Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones and Wak the alien's first exchange of dialogue is of Bugs Bunny's famous catchphrase. The song Wak performs for the kids is Little Richard's "All Around the World". While the film uses the original recording, the soundtrack included a re-recorded remix performed by Robert Palmer.

Dante and his editing team submitted a rough cut by the late spring of 1985, but Paramount wanted to take advantage of the busy summer market. They changed the initial release date of late August to early July. "They said "just stop editing the picture, we're gonna put it out, and we got a perfect date for it and we know it'll make a lot of money," said Dante. There was about an hour and a half worth of footage that was left on the cutting room floor. "There was a lot of spiritual kind of stuff in the movie that didn't make it in at all," Dante said. "There's a theory that was around at the time about the world mind and it was a concept I thought was interesting. We started to get into it and there was no way to make any sense out of it, so we just dumped all that. Now the only picture where that theory is even mentioned is Exorcist II unfortunately."[4] Sequences had to be re-dubbed, including one near the end where the boys are under a tree, to give the film a sense of closure.[8] The boy of the young couple in the drive-in scene where he calls the special effects "fake" is supposed to be Ben's brother. Dante says, "there was a whole family sub-plot that is completely missing." Dick Miller's character was also supposed to return in the third act.[4]

Release and reception[edit]

Explorers was released on July 12, 1985 on 1,750 theaters, which turned out to be the same weekend as when the Live Aid concert was being broadcast.[4] The film suffered badly that weekend and afterwards quickly disappeared. By the end of its run in theaters, it earned less than $10 million. When The Los Angeles Times compared the film with other commercial failures that summer, a Paramount executive responded, "here was a wonderful piece of material. But by the time it came out, you felt as though you'd already seen it."[9] Many of the international markets released the film later in December of the same year.

Explorers fared better in video rentals and cable broadcasts and garnered good reviews from critics. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times said, "Explorers" itself is bubble-thin, but it glides by gracefully on the charm of its three young heroes and their vividly envisioned adventure in space."[10] "Of all the Spielberg-inspired fantasy films afoot at the moment, Explorers is by far the most eccentric. It's charmingly odd at some moments, just plain goofy at others," said Janet Maslin in her review for The New York Times.[11] Over time, it has gained a cult following among fans of Dante's work, as well as science fiction fans and those who feel it is an overall family friendly movie.[12][13] It currently holds a 77% positive rank (out of 26 reviews) and a 6.0 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[14]

Joe Dante reflected on the film by saying that he is appreciative of the warm reception it has earned over the years, but continued by saying "the problem is for me is that the movie you'll see is not the movie I wanted to make. It's the movie I got to make up to a certain point and then had to stop. It's hard for me to look at it, cause it's not the film I quite had in mind."[4] The missing and cut scenes are presumably lost, as Dante tried searching for them in recent years[when?]. Some of the home video releases would be slightly recut to remove two scenes, where Wolfgang has an encounter with Steve Jackson's gang of bullies and a brief bit where the boys chase the Tilt-a-Whirl ride after they push it up a hill. Interestingly these two scenes were reinstated when it was added to Netflix. A brief sequence at the end where Ben daydreams about the Thunder Road ship restored and in the classroom was also added in some of the home video releases.[15] Originally before the end credits, in the theatrical cut, the alien Wak "broke the fourth wall" and remarked on people who were still in the theater from the smell of popcorn. In the re-edited home video version, he just tells another joke before it cuts to the closing credits.

A novelization of the film was written by George Gipe.[16]


The original music for the movie was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. An album was released on MCA featuring selections from his score plus three songs (including "All Around The World" as performed by Robert Palmer - the Little Richard version is heard in the movie).

  1. The Construction (2:25)
  2. Sticks And Stones (2:03)
  3. No Air (2:24)
  4. Less Than Perfect - Red 7 (4:06)
  5. The Bubble (1:43)
  6. First Flight (2:45)
  7. This Boy Needs To Rock - Night Ranger (3:57)
  8. All Around The World - Robert Palmer (2:18)
  9. Free Ride (3:33)
  10. Fast Getaway (4:47)
  11. She Likes Me (2:28)
  12. Have A Nice Trip (7:54)

The album was later reissued by Varese Sarabande with the score and songs separated.

In 2011 Intrada Records released the complete score.

  1. Main Title (Unused Version with "Wak's Boogie") (:51)
  2. Main Title (Film Version) (:47)
  3. The First Dream (:58)
  4. Sticks and Stones (2:23)
  5. Lori/Intervention (:50)
  6. Home (2:10)
  7. The Bubble (1:47)
  8. "Sci-Fi" Flick/The Roof-Top (2:04)
  9. Crazed Bubble/Fuse Box (2:44)
  10. Free Ride (3:43)
  11. Peek-A-Boo (1:53)
  12. The Prospect (1:40)
  13. The Construction (2:35)
  14. The Thunder Road (1:25)
  15. First Flight (3:03)
  16. No Air (2:34)
  17. I Want to Live (1:42)
  18. Time for Bed (1:36)
  19. More Dreams/Dreams (1:45)
  20. Let's Go (1:44)
  21. Fast Getaway (4:58)
  22. Wait Up (1:00)
  23. The Spider (:56)
  24. Alien Love Call (:57)
  25. We Come in Peace (2:04)
  26. She Likes Me (2:39)
  27. Neek Chords (:19)
  28. Looks Real (2:03)
  29. Space Pirates (:32)
  30. Gifts/Home Flight (5:21)
  31. Have a Nice Trip (8:03)
  32. Tannhäuser Overture [Excerpt] - Richard Wagner (4:04)
  33. Space Movie - Alexander Courage (3:02)


According to The Hollywood Reporter Paramount Pictures is developing a remake of Explorers through their low-budget label Insurge Pictures written by Geoff Moore and Dave Posamentier and produced by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec. The remake is said to be similar in tone to the upcoming Michael Bay-produced Project Almanac.[17]


  1. ^ "Disasters Outnumber Movie Hits". Sun-Sentinel. 4 September 1985. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (19 May 1985). "'Explorers'--Racing to the box office". Los Angeles Times. 
  3. ^ "Explorers (1985)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Joe Dante speaks about Explorers at the New Beverly - Pt 1/2 on YouTube
  5. ^ Glorieux, Thomas. "Jerry Goldsmith: Explorers". MainTitles.net. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Erickson, Glenn (19 October 2004). "Explorers: DVD Talk Review". DVD Talk. Internet Brands. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Currie, Cherie (16 March 2010). Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. New York City: HarperCollins. ISBN 0061961353. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  8. ^ "Explorers Movie Trivia". fast-rewind.com. Retrieved June 16, 2013. 
  9. ^ Friendly, David T. (6 August 1985). "A Summer of Discontent at the Box Office". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  10. ^ Thomas, Kevin (12 July 1985). "Movie Review : Gentle Dreams Of 'Explorers'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  11. ^ Maslin, Janet (12 July 1985). "The Screen: 'Explorers'". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  12. ^ "Top 11 Underrated Nostalgic Classics". The Nostalgia Critic. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  13. ^ "The Top 10 Cult Films of the 80s". TheVine.com. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  14. ^ Explorers at Rotten Tomatoes
  15. ^ Frank666 (10 November 2010). "Explorers (Comparison: DVD-VHS)". Movie-Censorship.com. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  16. ^ Gipe, George (1985). Explorers: A Novel. London: Severn House Publishers. ISBN 0727812785. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  17. ^ Kit, Borys. "Paramount to Remake 'Explorers' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 

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