Movie Night: Explorers

Year: 1985

Director: Joe Dante

Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Leads: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix
explorers_01This one was very much chosen by the title and synopsis. I’d never heard of it before – which doesn’t mean anything – and Little Satis certainly seemed taken by the plot. For me, I was drawn in by the thought of watching a little Ethan and River.

The plot requires a fairly serious suspension of disbelief, but the good news is that it makes this abundantly clear from the very outset. Little Ben Crandall has a dream of a state-of-the-art 80s 3D circuit board, and describes it to his friend Wolfgang, who happens to be a computer geek from a family of lab-coat-in-the-kitchen-wearing scientists. When Wolfgang builds the circuit, it turns out to create a sphere of pure energy (yes – bear with me on this one) that can be directed simply by typing 3D coordinates into a computer program.

Testing it one day on a hill, Ben manages to inadvertently trap Wolfgang inside the sphere, where he discovers that it’s both airtight, and completely excused from all Newtonian physics (no acceleration, no deceleration, no gravity, etc.). Of course, this leads to the idea of building a kid-sized spaceship to sit inside the sphere, so they can go into space.

It’s there that they discover the dreams weren’t an accident – they were sent to Ben by aliens. Aliens who turn out to be…

Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Plot aside, there were some genuinely (and surprisingly) powerful moments in the movie. Without delving too deep, we are shown a well-portrayed view of 14-year-old life. There are the geeks, cool kids and bullies, the junior-high crushes, and a deliberate range of backgrounds and upbringings. The opening of the film is particularly well-executed in introducing the characters and their natures; we see Wolfgang stumbling down a morning street with a laughably over-sized stack of school books in his arms (navel-high trousers, face-frame glasses and all), who is naturally stopped by bullies. Arriving on his bike moments after his books are tossed into a neighbor’s front lawn, Ben nonchalantly lets Wolfgang put his books in his basket, and walks the bike to school with him. Then, moments after establishing Ben as the cool kid, we see Ben himself beat up for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. And that’s when the real cool kid – Darren – steps in and saves the day (Darren rides a scooter, so we know for sure he’s cool).

Darren poses an interesting character in himself; though Jason Presson isn’t on the same level as Ethan and River, he does a fine job as a quiet introvert from a broken home, eventually pulled from his shell by the excitement and enthusiasm of his friends. The three have a wonderful dynamic presence with each other, each possessing their own quirks and manners. When they first take their spaceship for a test flight (and decimate a drive-in theater), Wolfgang wants to run test after test; Ben isn’t sure what to think, and Darren, of all people, is jumping to go again.

In the end, there is nothing profound about this movie; it’s not exactly a coming-of-age movie, a children’s movie, or even a comedy. It’s a unique little gem that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has no problem completely fudging reality in favor of plot, and pits three excellent actors together in a very convincing portrayal of teen friendship.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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