For me, Joe Dante’s Explorers is one such example – a film which, coincidentally, celebrates its 25 anniversary this year, alongside two of the more obvious box office hits from that era, The Goonies and Back to the Future.
I remember first watching this in primary school as an end-of-term Christmas treat and being instantly smitten. Coming off the hugely successful Gremlins (which was made by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin) Dante chose to direct this rather low-key and more personal feature. It’s a fun and whimsical little tale of three kids (featuring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix) who receive coded messages (via Hawke’s character’s dreams!) enabling them to build a spaceship and make contact with extra terrestrials. Talk about the ultimate in childhood wish fulfilment!
You can clearly see why Spielberg was drawn to filmmakers like Dante and I can almost imagine the two of them at school, about the same age as the characters in this film, staring wistfully outside during lessons and sketching flying saucers in their book instead of the maths equations they’re supposed to be working on.
With the exception of Gremlins, Dante’s films from that period didn’t come close to matching Spielberg’s in terms of acclaim and box office revenue, but they do share that same sense of wonder, and it’s particularly evident in one of Explorers beautifully constructed montage sequences, where the boys cobble together their spaceship out of an old waltzer car and various household bits and pieces (helped along by a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score). I think the reason why Dante has remained more of a cult figure, and perhaps why his films haven’t caught on the way they should have, is that they are infused with a more deliberate B-movie sensibility than that of his peers.
In fact, Explorers offers many nods to the directors own childhood sci-fi influences. Hawke’s character Ben is first introduced, asleep in his bedroom, while the 50’s version of War of the Worlds is nosily playing out on the TV in the corner. There’s also a sweet scene where the kid’s spacecraft (christened Thunder Road) flies across a huge drive-in screen, confusing the audience who appear to looking at a real third dimension to the old black and white schlocky sci-fi film playing in the background.
When the kids finally reach the origin of the messages (a huge starship) they’re confronted by a couple of cartoonish-looking, Looney Tunes-esque aliens (another unmistakable Dante touch). The two creatures babble in a weird dialect which the kids soon discover they have learned through beaming in hours of trashy American TV. It’s an interesting premise, with a subtle message (the aliens perceive the earth to be an evil place, due to all the violence they’ve witness via channel-hopping), bit it’s also a little too silly and overindulgent, failing to really offer a satisfying conclusion and sapping the film a little of it’s momentum and excitement. It’s a minor quibble however and something my 10 year-old self certainly didn’t have an issue with!
I can only imagine the film’s weak ending may have contributed to it’s less than stellar performance at the US box office (it made a little under $10m – pretty dismal for back then even). Dante has claimed many times in the past that budget and script issues restricted him from making the film he originally envisioned, and I genuinely believe if everything had gone according to plan, Explorers would have been up there with the aforementioned classics.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Dante’s films, particularly The ‘Burbs and Innerspace, and it’s reassuring to see that this unique filmmaker has a 3D cinema feature film coming soon – his first since 2003 (when he directed the ill-received cartoon/human mash-up, Looney Tunes: Back In Action). If the film does well and I think it has the potential to (3D is a format which is probably closest to his own tastes), I hope a new generation of kids will seek out his earlier work.
After all, there’s more to him than just a mischievous Mogwai.
Frustratingly, Explorers appears to have been deleted on Region 2. However, it does make a regular appearance on Film4 in the UK.
Here’s a (not great, but the best we could find) trailer