Customer Review

Reviewed in Canada on October 25, 2004
Joe Dante has forged a unique career by making tiny, personal films that just happen to cost millions of dollars and frequently push state-of-the-art visual effects to the next level. Though many critics and younger audience members view his work as overly referential, those of us who grew up on a Cold War diet of 50s science-fiction films, stories by Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein, and cultural touchstones like MAD Magazine, E.C. Comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland know exactly where Joe's heart lies. His finest films are love letters to his own childhood.
And mine.
As much as I admire all of Dante's work, my two favorites have always been MATINEE and EXPLORERS. It's a pleasure to finally see the latter appear on DVD. Although situated smack-dab in the middle of the 80s, the film is a big-brotherly pat on the shoulder to every kid who tried to build a spaceship in his backyard while Dad loaded the final bags of rice into the fallout shelter. Screenwriter Eric Luke (whom, as I recall, had been clerking at a Los Angeles science-fiction bookstore when this script sold) has crafted a tale of supreme silliness laced together with just enough plausible beats to allow the audience its all important willing suspension of disbelief. (No, the kids don't actually build their own spaceship, just the lovely Tilt-A-Whirl-based contrivance that rides within the alien forcefield technology they've happened upon.) The cast is remarkable; joining Dante's regular stock company (Roger Corman stalwart Dick Miller etc.) are 15-year-olds River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke in their screen debuts, the great character actor James Cromwell (BABE) as Phoenix's father (and, apparently, one of Wernher von Braun's V-2 boys), and another Dante frequent flyer, Robert Picardo (Star Trek - Voyager), in a triple role as the alien Wak, his space-trucker dad, and a badly-dubbed drive-in hero named Starkiller (a rather sly riff on the ever-popular STAR WARS trilogy.)
The sets, visual effects and art direction, particularly in the alien spacecraft scenes that occupy most of the third act, are remarkable and still have impact 20 years later. If there's a storytelling flaw to be found here - and I don't happen to think there is but many contemporary critics clearly did - I suspect it may lie in the atypical passivness of our explorers upon finally reaching their goal. Nothing blows up, nobody comes up with any great schemes, universes are neither saved nor lost. It's been argued that the main difference between movies and real life is that movies characters do stuff - they take action and make things happen. In life, mostly, we watch and wait. Well in this movie that's exactly what our heroes do - they strive to get somewhere unique, and once there they watch, they learn, they evaluate, they explore. Anethema to most current audiences (and execs), but exactly in keeping with the tone and requirements of this story, and thrilling for the depth of humor and imagination on display.
Few critics (or paying audience members) gave EXPLORERS much of a break upon first release. Against a crowded field of cute and resourceful kid movies (E.T., GOONIES, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES etc.), it must have seemed like more of the same, differing only in the number of Chuck Jones references. But if you're a fan of heartfelt, literate science-fiction I implore you to take a chance. EXPLORERS's opening flying dream sequence both sets the tone and establishes the underlying theme of this film. This warm, deeply silly and utterly delightful movie surges and flows with a logic and timeless lilt that's usually only found in the best dreams - those all-too-rare ones you just hate to wake up from.
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