Thursday, November 24, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Explorers

The success of Super 8 this past summer had me thinking of how "Spielbergian" used to be a category of movies all its own. Throughout the Eighties, filmmakers and studios made many, many attempts to capture audiences with stories about the magic of childhood and stories of ordinary people encountering the otherworldly. Explorers was Paramount's big-budget attempt to follow in E.T.'s footsteps, but with Joe Dante at the helm and a particularly offbeat script by Eric Luke, the film is both quirkier and more personal than a typical summer offering then or now. Though it's not really consistent, it has an innocence and whimsy that makes it more effective than most attempts at sci-fi-tinged nostalgia.

Ben (Ethan Hawke) has been having weird dreams of flying over a giant circuitboard. He describes what he sees his friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix), son of a scientist (James Cromwell) and a child prodigy whose home computer has a whole 128K. Surprisingly, the circuit board actually does something, creating a small bubble of force whose movements can be controlled by computer input. The sphere can be made any size, and moves without inertia. Darrin (Jason Presson), a kid from a poor family who's recently befriended Ben, gives them the idea to build a ship out of junkyard parts, and soon the three are flying over town and causing a panic at the drive-in. Their flight is interrupted, though, by a strange signal, and Ben realizes that the dreams and the signal were sent by aliens wanting to meet them. After some repairs and restocking, the boys follow the signal into outer space, ending up inside a fantastical spaceship inhabited by two decidedly playful aliens, Wak (Robert Picardo) and Neek (Leslie Rickert), who have learned all they know about humanity from television.

The film's third act is decidedly sillier than the rest of it, which is the source of most of the criticism the picture received. Wak's TV-fueled wisecracking does break some of the mystery the film has built up, and it's easy to see why a viewer might not only be disappointed with the reveal, but see it as a cynical attempt at creating easily marketable characters. (I'm unaware of any merchandise the film spawned beyond the soundtrack album, but I know it's out there.) But it's also possible to read the segment as a twist on the old science fiction concept of aliens intercepting our broadcast transmissions (usually used to explain why they speak English.) All the audiovisual detritus we've thrown into space ends up influencing its inhabitants, in a kind of cargo cult way. Sure, it's pandering a little, especially when Wak performs a Fifties rock-and-roll hit, but it's also very funny, a showcase for Robert Picardo's comic versatility. Huge portions of his performance were improvised, and it's more impressive when you consider he's actually wearing the elaborate alien costume. (Picardo also figures heavily in Starkiller, a cheesy dubbed sci-fi flick playing at the drive-in when the boys pay a visit.)

Director Dante's fondness for in-jokes ends up serving the picture well; Ben is a terminal sci-fi geek, unable to resist telling his new friend Darren about the cassette he just got of This Island Earth, and clips of the movies he watches show up in his dreams and have an influence on what the boys encounter, especially since the aliens have been seeing the same late-night movies. There are posters, comics, and pulp paperbacks everywhere, as well as subtler homages to old movie classics. Movies like this are often about the creators' own pasts, and here we have a clear metaphor of a boy setting out to make his dreams into reality. Dante regular Dick Miller has a wonderful role as a police helicopter pilot who runs afoul of the trio's ship, and he reveals that he's had dreams like that as a kid, and has been having them again, but he's let the moment pass. It's a subtly tragic choice.

The film is just realistic enough to draw us in, but there's a subtle magic to it. The kids' home-made spaceship, dubbed the Thunder Road, is extremely ramshackle but looks like it could hold together somehow (maybe it's the lightning decals.) It sits in a misty creek bed which just might be near a typical suburb, but is still bigger than life. And yeah, Wolfgang has a mouse which can talk by pressing keys on a synthesizer. It's funny. The whole thing is tied together by what may actually be legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith's finest work, a stirringly beautiful score that adds the right level of drama to the proceedings which, of course, are the thing a kid would take deadly seriously.

It's an odd movie, effective even if it doesn't maintain much in the way of tonal consistency. Even in its goofier moments there's sincerity, a sense that the filmmakers genuinely believe in the power of dreams to become real, and it's the authenticity of it that makes Explorers succeed where other attempts to ride Spielberg's bandwagon fail. This time of year always brings out the nostalgia in me, and a film that pays tribute to the imagination itself is often just what we need as the year grows dim.

Written by Eric Luke
Directed by Joe Dante
Grade: A-

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