Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Films of 1985: Explorers

Two movies wage a war for supremacy in Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985).

One movie is a quasi-Spielberg film that lionizes childhood and pays tribute to the 1950s science fiction (and even no-science fiction) productions familiar to and beloved by baby boomers

The second film feels much more indicative of Dante’s creative approach and is an irreverent, subversive, film that depicts alien first contact by way of a Looney Tunes-like universe.

The problem with Explorers is that these two films and tones don’t fit together in the slightest. 

And since the film starts firmly in Spielberg mode, it is that mode which -- whatever its sentimental pitfalls -- should have carried the day.

However, the wonder, innocence and majesty of Explorers’ first half finds no purchase, no outlet and no resolution in the film’s disappointing third act.

Even the film’s star, young Ethan Hawke, looks befuddled and dispirited by the alien stand-up comedy and rock-and-roll performance he must endure during the film’s movie-killing climax.

The unspoken question roiling beneath Hawke’s expressive young face is one that all viewers of the 1985 film will share. 

We traveled all this way and fell in love with these characters…just for this?

For cut-rate, cartoon aliens doing bad imitations of Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope and Desi Arnaz?

I first saw Explorers at the Royal Theater in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in 1985, when I was fifteen years old.  Even then, I understood a simple fact about the film’s drama and structure. The film’s trio of young protagonists -- so open, enterprising, imaginative, and full of hope -- deserved a journey that honored their good character.  They deserved an odyssey like the one Exeter teased in This Island Earth (1951) and which is excerpted explicitly in Explorers

They deserved an opportunity to interface with a “vast universe…filled with wonders.” 

Instead, this triumvirate reached the stars only to find that even in space, it is impossible to escape TV reruns and baby-boomer nostalgia.

“I’m afraid my wounds can never be healed.”

Bullied at school, young Ben Crandall (Hawke) dreams of flying at night.  

One night, he dreams of flying over a landscape that transforms into a high-tech circuit board.  When Ben shares his notes about this dream with his friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix) and they are put into a computer, Ben realizes that another intelligence is communicating with him.

Along with another boy, Darren (Jason Presson), who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks Ben and Wolfgang experiment with the alien technology, creating a force bubble that can mitigate forces of acceleration, gravity and inertia.

In other words, the bubble is a force-field of sorts, protecting any object or person that happens to be inside it.  Ben and the other boys resolve to build a spaceship, and visit the local junkyard to create a small craft, which they christen The Thunder Road. It is built from a Tilt-a-whirl.

After a second dream, which provides information about life-support inside their ship, Ben and the others take to the stars to visit their benefactors.  

They leave Earth, and a nosy police man (Dick Miller) behind, and travel to space to reckon with some very strange alien beings…

“It could be something we can’t even imagine.”

One brand of Spielberg’s aesthetic, as represented by E.T. (1982), and to a lesser extent, Jaws (1975), Close Encounters (1978), Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), Invaders from Mars (1986) and Super 8 (2011), is clearly on view in Explorers’ first two acts. 

Like some of those films, this one involves precocious but disillusioned youngsters who, through a surprising connection with the supernatural/paranormal, re-discover magic and wonder in their often-disappointing lives. 

As we have seen in some Spielberg films (and the films of his contemporaries), “this boy’s life” in Explorers is one in which the traditional middle-class family has failed the enterprising child. Darren’s mother is dead, and his father’s attentions are elsewhere, even though he lives in suburbia (also the setting of E.T. and others).  Ben, meanwhile, seems to live in a world where parents are absent.  At school, he is the victim of a bully named Jackson. These views of childhood can be compared with instances of parental death or divorce in Super 8 and E.T., respectively.

A key location in all these films is the central boy’s bedroom, a sanctuary which he decorates with products/items that reflect his imaginative nature. In this case, we see that Ben has a poster of It Came from Outer Space (1953) on his bedroom wall, and that his disk is littered with Marvel Comics.  And playing on the TV while he sleeps is George Pal’s War of the Worlds.

Thus we can extrapolate that Ben has escaped an unhappy (or at least unsatisfying) family life by escaping into his bedroom…and the fantasy worlds offered in popular entertainment.

Because Spielberg, Tobe Hooper, and Joe Dante are all boomers, they tend to imbue their adolescent characters with a love for older science fiction films, even though it is not, necessarily, a realistic quality. I was a kid at the same time as Elliott or Ben, or Billy (the 1970s-1980s), and I was into Star Wars, Space:1999, Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, not of the productions which get call-backs here: The Thing (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and Forbidden Planet (1956).  I made it my mission to see all those films, of course, and I admire them all tremendously, but they were not bedroom poster-worthy to my generation, if that makes sense.

Therefore, it is not too difficult to understand that these tributes to older films -- in E.T., Explorers and the like -- represent the filmmakers’ reckoning with their own childhoods. They are re-imagining their own youth in these 1980s films, and that sometimes adds a self-indulgent quality to the art. It would be like me making a film about kids today, and decorating their bedrooms with Space:1999 (1975 – 1977) or Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) posters. Fun as an allusion? Sure.  Realistic? Not particularly.

Ironically, in terms of science fiction movies, the 1980s works of Spielberg and his contemporaries -- all of whom I admire very much -- actually represent a paradigm shift away from 1950s and 1960s genre works.

In older films, like Forbidden Planet or even Kubrick’s 2001, explorers in space and time voyage to the edge of reality, to the frontier, and are challenged to recognize new ideas there. By contrast, in some 1980s films brandishing the Spielberg aesthetic, explorers in space and time encounter the paranormal and find worlds and beings not that challenge their concept of the universe or their belief system, but that bring them emotional comfort; that reinforce their imaginative/fantastic belief systems.

Elliott needs a friend, and E.T. teaches him how to connect to others. The kids in Explorers visit the stars, and meet there alien children who steal their father’s car/spaceship, and quake in fear from menacing parental figures.

The message?  Kids and parents are alike all over.

The aliens’ reason for not visiting Earth in Explorers is even dramatized in terms of baby boomer cinema. The aliens show the human children a montage of humans treating aliens badly, including imagery from 20,000 Million Miles to Earth (1967), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and so on. The sub-textual message is that aliens can’t visit Earth because our parents ruined everything, just as they ruined our lives.

Accordingly, Explorers lionizes innocence…so much so that alien beings are not different creatures to reckon with, but mirrors that validate a childhood perspective on life.  It’s the Peter Pan syndrome. Also in the film, an older policeman, played by Dick Miller recalls that he once dreamed of going to the stars, but that those dreams receded as he grew up. Again, a message is wrought: adults need not apply for the magical Explorers space program. Only the very young, and the very innocent, may board this flight.

Apparently, in space we can only expect to meet beings who will fill our empty spots, not beings who will challenge us to grow, and evolve, and become better than we are.

Clearly, this idea can work beautifully, and even feel magical on occasion, as E.T. and Close Encounters aptly demonstrate. They are great films.

But Explorers seems to tread a step too far in the same direction, suggesting that imagination, tenacity, and optimism will be rewarded only with a world of perpetual boomer references or allusions, one where Ed Sullivan, Mr. Ed, Bugs Bunny and Tarzan are always on the tube, always repeating their greatest hits.  Explorers reduces all the wonders of the universe to a closed-loop of 1950s nostalgia, and therefore undercuts the very message of great films like Forbidden Planet, or even This Island Earth.  

The scenes here with the goofy, TV-quoting aliens, truly betray the film’s beautiful first half, which strikes a deep chord with me on a personal level in some regard. Specifically, much of the early portions of Explorers involve the building of a spaceship out of junk and spare parts. A tilt-a-whirl ride is the basis for the spaceship that Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren build, but other pieces are added on, and that little ramshackle spaceship is a wondrous thing: a manifestation of childhood imagination.

I remember very clearly when I was a young man, watching as two friends built -- out of whatever they could find -- a raft that they hoped to sail down a nearby river.  I remember seeing them in the neighborhood one day, spare parts on their backs, bags of snacks in their hands, as they prepared for the launch of their “ship.”  I don’t know if the raft ever proved sea worthy, but I have always remembered their joy at the possibility of building a vessel that could carry them…away, to the unknown. 

In ways profound and wondrous, the first half of Explorers captures that youthful feeling of assembling a dream; of building with your own hands a vehicle that could alter your destiny and carry you to new horizons. The early scenes in the film that find the youths experimenting with the alien force bubble and constructing their own ride to the stars remain magical, and meaningful. Indeed, they are so compelling, well-wrought and charmingly performed that the film’s final act plays as all the more disappointing.  If you watch the film closely, you can’t help but love Ben, Wolfgang and Darren.

The Thunder Road (the name of the ship, provided by Darren) and her crew ultimately deserved a journey of discovery and wonder, not one that found the final frontier was just…old TV. 

The promise -- as Ben clearly enunciates it -- is to “go where no man has gone before” (not just a TV reference, but a promise of new territory explored), and see something that humans “can’t even imagine,” something that could qualify as “the greatest thing ever.”

Ask yourself? Do the Looney Tunes alien fit the bill? As the greatest thing ever? As something unimaginable?

If not, what could the aliens have looked like instead?  Perhaps they could have been being who understood that a dream is best when shared and when built, piece-by-piece with your own hands. 

In the film, Ben and Wolfgang (and eventually Lori and Darren) dream of the technology they need to touch the stars. They share a kind of “hive dream” universe, and yet the childish, bug-eyed aliens we meet in the finale don’t seem capable of having sent these dreams to them. That’s an important disconnect in the film.

Explorers needed aliens who were more like teachers, or benevolent parents, perhaps, than like Bob Hope-quoting bug-eyed juveniles.  Why?  So Ben and the others would see that life wasn’t just disappointment after disappointment, but the possibility of them building a brave new world together.

Explorers also hasn’t aged well in terms of its treatment of Lori (Amanda Peterson). I realize that the film is thirty years old, but Lori is a virtual non-character in the film. She is a prize for Ben to “win” at the end of his adventure, and a character who never gets to ride in the Thunder Road, or visit the stars.

Even when I was fifteen -- thirty years ago -- I knew that was wrong.  Girls dream big too and possess great imagination, so Lori should have been a major character in the film, not just Ben’s reward for reaching the stars. I trust the anticipated remake of the film will rectify this problem.

Before Explorers, Joe Dante was on something of a roll, having directed Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and Gremlins (1984), all terrific films in my estimation. I have read that Explorers went into production, however, without the team settling on an ending. I’m afraid that the absence of a carefully-plotted, coherent third-act shows. It handicaps the film. The film’s first half -- while soaked in Boomer self-indulgence -- nonetheless captures the wonders of childhood, and the amazing feeling of building your destiny, one spare part at a time.  The last half of the film, which wallows in pop culture kitsch, is a misstep for the ages.

To misquote Exeter from This Island Earth, I’m afraid Explorers’ inconsistent approach to its narrative is a grievous wound, one that “will never be healed.”

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