Tuesday, September 30, 2008

There's Always A Reason When You Dream

Joe Dante returned to the New Beverly on Monday night and introduced the film we were about to see as “the rough cut of EXPLORERS”. Of course, it was the same version released in theaters back in 1985 but he makes it clear that he displays a certain amount of ambivalence towards the thing. Hearing him talk about it, I understand. While watching the movie, I understand. But he also freely admits that it has developed a certain fan base over the years of people who respond to its earnestness crossed with its unexpected third act. The movie never feels like it gels enough to work like it should, but it’s still hard for me to dislike.

For those who have never seen it, EXPLORERS tells the story of three kids (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson) who construct their own spacecraft which they name the "Thunder Road" after mysterious dreams enable them to create a sealed bubble with a computer which will enable them to travel within it. After a test flight which results in chaos at a nearby drive-in (showing a cheesy sci-fi film called STARKILLER) and catches the interest of a police helicopter pilot (beloved Dante regular Dick Miller), further dreams lead the three to pursue actually taking a flight into space. But as it turns out, the aliens who greet them aren’t quite the intelligent creatures of wonderment that they expect.

During his introduction, Dante talked about the making of the film which came just after the blockbuster success of GREMLINS. The script by Eric Luke was being rewritten during production although the director indicated that the third act, where things take a somewhat unexpected, anarchic turn, came from him in place of an earlier version where the kids wind up playing baseball with the aliens. And after a rushed script development and shoot, Paramount then moved up the release date to mid-July (the same weekend as Live Aid) so he never really got the chance to finish the film properly, with entire characters and subplots left on the cutting room floor. Dick Miller of course had more screen time, Mary Kay Place gets a “Special Thanks To” credit for appearing as Ethan Hawke’s mom in two brief scenes (there was orignally much more with his family) and while Amanda Peterson (best remembered today for starring in CAN’T BUY ME LOVE with Patrick Dempsey) once had a much bigger part as Hawke’s not-so-secret crush, although watching it this time I thought that in some ways it made sense to have her only looked at from afar. Of course, since we can’t see any of the extra scenes, it’s impossible to ever know what that version of the film would have been.

More interestingly, Dante also stated that he had an idea to incorporate concepts of the “World Mind”, an expansion of consciousness which was also discussed in pertinent dialogue in EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC but the development of the script moved so fast there was never a chance to do much with it. This idea, even though unused, actually helps make sense of a few things which remain in the film particularly when the spaceship seems to mentally make contact with Jason Presson’s character, planting certain images (some of which are not seen in the film otherwise) into his head in rapid succession. It’s an interesting concept and suggests that Dante aimed to insert ideas beyond what you’d normally find in a summer sci-fi film. EXPLORERS just needed more time to bring all these ideas together and its director never had it. Since such ideas were never fully developed in the script stage, let alone being shot, it sounds like even if Dante were able to assemble all the missing footage (he implied this is impossible anyway) it couldn’t be considered a true director’s cut by him anyway.

With these issues fresh in mind, there are problems that turn up while viewing EXLORERS. For the first third we spend so much time with just the three boys that it winds up feeling a little claustrophobic—when we get to the Drive-In sequence it’s a slight relief that we get to see other people (for the first time I noticed that second on the bill is ATOMIC WAR BRIDES, one of the films being made in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). And once we get to the spaceship where we finally meet the aliens, a great deal of it is enjoyable (much of Dante regular Robert Picardo’s dialogue, very funny, is ad-libbed) but there’s still the feeling that it could use some tightening up in this section which unfortunately leads into an finale that feels rushed and incomplete. The version seen on video and DVD all these years is a slight recut of the film and wisely extends the ending (this includes a brief scene that I always liked) but again, it seems there was never a way to fix all the issues.

Still, EXPLORERS plays more interesting to me now because I get a feel of the sadness somewhere in there. The three leads are outcasts and not in a movie-type way like in THE GOONIES--this is the first film for Hawke and Phoenix, by the way. The Junior High they go to seems like a genuinely unpleasant place, which automatically makes it more realistic than most schools we get in movies. Even within the majesty of the Jerry Goldsmith score there's a yearning which almost acknowledges that when we were kids none of us ever really got to build a spaceship (or a time machine or gain superpowers, etc) in our backyards. Watching it now it's easier to remove it from the context of the Spielberg-school of fantasy filmmaking. With Dante removed from making a film under the Spielberg banner it becomes clear that the two of them had many common reference points but here Dante's going for something else, some kind of acceptance of what didn't happen in childhood. Yes, there's a slickness missing that may have been in some of the films Spielberg was producing around this time (again, THE GOONIES is the first one that comes to mind here) but there's a more genuine attempt at emotion as well. And while the third act has always generated controversy due to its intentional rug-pulling, it has additional resonance for me now after seeing his legendary opus THE MOVIE ORGY last spring, connecting the dissection of pop culture from another era to this film's aliens who are also obsessed with such things. It’s as if Dante is trying to reconcile the inevitable disappointment of the big unknown by embracing what he loves that he finds in there. Or maybe it’s just about trying to still hope that you’ll wind up kissing that girl and take off into new adventures. Either way, I still enjoy returning to EXPLORERS every now and then. There are plenty of 80s fantasy films with kids which I never say that about.

The various themes sprinkled through the film—the sadness of childhood, the absurdity of TV, the hope of what you find in dreams—never feel like they come together fully but it always is recognizable as a film by Joe Dante which makes me slightly biased towards it. And my thanks to him for the generous things he said to me the other night about this blog. It means more than I can express here.


Aaron W. Graham said...

I have a fondness for problem films for some reason, so I've always felt strong admiration for this work (arguably more than the first GREMLINS).

It's terribly emotional to me, and I think those sensations/feelings about the "world mind" are there even if the scenes are lost (one look at Dick Miller's face tells me all I need to know about his character - I adore his feisty behaviour in other Dante films, but this is my favourite of his roles for the director).

And that GREAT Goldsmith score!

Wish I could have been there, so thanks for this wonderful overview of the night.

Unknown said...

Great article and a nice companion piece to your thoughts on MATINEE. Man, I haven't seen this film in years... probably since it first came out on home video. I do remember seeing it during its original theatrical run and enjoying it very much. Your article really makes me want to check this out again.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I know what you mean about problem films, the ones where we can really sense what they're reaching for even if they don't quite achieve it. And yes, there really is some genuine emotion in there. I'm glad you liked the piece.


Thanks very much for that, it really does go with MATINEE in some ways. I hope you take another look at it sometime soon.

Anonymous said...

Another article I really enjoyed reading, Peel.

Joe Dante directs movies I have to convince myself I should like. If I really think about the subtext and wackiness, I can give The Howling or Gremlins 2 or this one a pass. I'd still rather watch something like WarGames that's just good on its own.

I did love the technical sheen of the film and Jerry Goldsmith composed another terrific score. I can also appreciate Dante trying something he couldn't bring together in time, but I also think anyone reading your site could take that poster and the title Explorers and write a better movie.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I wonder how WARGAMES holds up these days--I haven't seen it for years. There's a true personality in Dante's films that I really respond to, I'll admit that. I'm not saying it should be for everyone or that the films always work. EXPLORERS certainly doesn't always work. But there are still things in there that I like. I'd try to find out if I could write a better version, but I'm awfully busy today.