Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Joe Dante|
|Produced by||David Bombyk
Edward S. Feldman
|Written by||Eric Luke|
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Editing by||Tina Hirsch|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Release dates||July 12, 1985|
|Running time||Theatrical cut:
Home video cut:
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 debut, as teenage schoolboys who built a spacecraft to explore the outer space. The special effects in the movie were produced by Industrial Light & Magic, with makeup effects by Rob Bottin.
Rushed into production, the film was never properly finished. Director Dante revealed that the studio demanded that he stop editing and rush for the July release. Despite being a box office flop upon its release, it attracted a cult following, as do many of Dante's films.
While watching late-night science-fiction movies, Ben (Ethan Hawke) has a vivid dream of flying over a space-like circuit board and shares his visions with his best friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) a young scientific genius who is able to translate his dreams into a complex circuit board that actually works.
After numerous experiments, they discover the circuit board creates an electrically generated sphere. By using a computer to steer it, they can make it move anywhere in three dimensions, even as far as slamming it through solid walls.
With the help of their new friend Darren (Jason Presson), they create a home-made spacecraft out of an old Tilt-A-Whirl car naming it the Thunder Road and embark on an adventure to another galaxy where they find that things are not always as they seem.
- Ethan Hawke as Ben Crandall
- River Phoenix as Wolfgang Müller
- Jason Presson as Darren Woods
- Bobby Fite as Steve Jackson
- Bradley Gregg as Steve Jackson's gang member
- Georg Olden as Steve Jackson's gang member
- Chance Schwass as Steve Jackson's gang member
- Amanda Peterson as Lori Swenson
- Danny Nucci as Steve Jackson's gang member
- Dana Ivey as Mrs. Müller
- Taliesin Jaffe as Ludwig Müller
- James Cromwell as Mr. Müller
- Brooke Bundy as Science Teacher
- Eric Luke as Darren's Teacher
- Robert Picardo as Starkiller / Wak / Wak and Neek's Father
- Leslie Rickert as Neek
- Karen Mayo-Chandler as Carla (Starkiller's girlfriend)
- Robert F. Boyle as Carla's Father
- Dick Miller as Charlie Drake
- Meshach Taylor as Gordon Miller
- Mary Kay Place as Mrs. Crandall
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. 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.
This was the feature film debuts for both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. 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 casted him as Wolfgang. (A nerdy opposite to the roles Phoenix is popular for.) 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.
"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."' 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. 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 change 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." 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. 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.
Release and reception
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. 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." 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 L.A. 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." "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. 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. It currently holds a 76% positive rank (out of 25 reviews) and a 6.0 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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." The missing and cut scenes are presumably lost, as Dante tried searching for them in recent years. 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. Originally before the end credits, in the theatrical cut, the alien Wak "broke the fourth wall" and remarked how he knows people are still out there due to the popcorn smell. In the reedited home video version, he just tells another joke before it cuts to the closing credits.
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- "Top 11 Underrated Nostalgic Classics". The Nostalgia Critic. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
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- Explorers at Rotten Tomatoes