The Film Society of Lincoln Center has an ongoing series of family films (with $6 admissions for all!). On New Year’s Day, and again on the 7th, they’re showing Joe Dante’s boys-in-space flick Explorers, with Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.
In this 1985 kiddy adventure flick, director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Matinee) celebrates a child’s vivid imagination by making a boy’s dream of a computer motherboard that eventually guides a home-made rocket ship into outer space—the whole thing is highly eccentric and uniquely disjointed, lumpy but frequently arresting. We are, after all, talking about a movie where a menacing-looking stop motion robot molests a young Ethan Hawke for a few uncomfortable seconds, just to steal a picture of the teenage girl next door he keeps in his back pocket.
Explorers s first hour is spent following the film’s barely pubescent protagonists, including Hawke and a pre-Stand By Me River Phoenix, as they prepare to make first contact with aliens that gorge on the dated pop culture references of Dante’s youth. Before they can meet Dante’s E.T.s, the three boys (Jason Presson is the other) putter around planet Earth trying to figure out how to create a working spaceship from designs culled together from young Hawke’s dreams. They do this for a whole hour, which proves to be not a entirely unpleasant albeit lurching watch, given that Dante’s Terran suburbs are populated by kid geniuses, bug bomb-obsessed parents, cute tabby cats and This Island Earth references.
After that, Explorers becomes a more uniformly entertaining comedy, featuring bug-eyed monsters that love to watch informercials and Mr. Ed. Granted, this last 50 minutes is also when Dante tries to pull his ungainly valentine to junky scifi movies together into a family-friendly tract about how children shouldn’t just put aside childish things once they reach a certain age. Loving junk, even good junk, in this case is conflated with a sense of exploration and emotional sensitivity that other human beings don’t have. Explorers does not make much more sense beyond that but it is pretty fascinating in a way that only Joe Dante would do.