Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Eric Luke
Cinematographer: John Hora
by Jon Cvack
In Explorers, River Phoenix plays an uptight nerd computer genius, later doing a complete 180 a few years later with Stand By Me, demonstrating his incredible range at such a young age. Ethan Hawke plays his best friend, in which we can witness all of the inflections and physical quarks that would later come to embody his more later performances - his nervous, though tamed excitement; his breath control and the way it empowers the more intense deliveries; and so many others.
What starts out as an amazing film ends very so-so. Before reading the trivia, I had a suspicion that the film wasn’t done. Sure enough, they were planning on doing reshoots, but the studio decided to release the film as is. Subsequently, the ending seems rushed and borderline incoherent. We never really know what happens to all of the characters, or how the situation impacted them. For a story that’s so strong and adventurous, that’s the true tragedy. I would have loved to see what was planned.
There’s something about 80s and 90s kids film which was mentioned in our thoughts on Matinee. They treated kids as real individuals rather than cookie cutter portraits. There was an excitement about sneaking out past bedtime and getting involved with a situation that only you and your other friends knew of. The aliens in the film were kids as well, anxious to contact those on Earth to see how closely they matched the media that they consumed. It all reminds me of a family friendly version of the scene from The Abyss where we witness the alien's view of Earth as a destructive and aggressive planet.
These young aliens are unable to talk without the use of endless quotes and allusions to 80s pop culture, preluding what would come to dominate the 90s. Stand up comedians, talk show hosts, songs, they know it all. To think that this isn’t entirely off base is the most poignant moment of Explorers. Like that opening scene from Contact (1997) where we hear the broadcasts falling out to space, why wouldn’t aliens think this is our strange attempt at communication? As the 80s was pushing cable television across the globe, causing people to sit and binge for hours on end, Explorers demonstrates the side effects. There is nothing to say with such shallow content, because the content-itself is not saying anything. And this was a kids film.
I remember seeing the film as a kid, determined to build my own spacecraft out of junk. I’m sure I’m not alone. For that reason alone - to push kids to create and imagine - this is an amazing film. As usual, there's nothing comparable today.
BONUS: River Phoenix’s story is fascinating. He was a younger James Dean (which I later found out he was called precisely ‘the vegan James Dean’ by Rouse Rose), in only a handful of films, one of which would achieve cult status as the greatest coming of age story of all time. He died from drug intoxication outside of Johnny’s Depp’s The Viper Room, while hanging out with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when he collapsed to the ground and began to suffocate, dying on the site. I have no doubt that, similar to Dean, he would have been one of the greatest actors of our time. His performance in Stand By Me was so honest and true that it was almost no surprise that he drifted into drug abuse. To think of all such a young kid accomplished and what else could have come from him is tough.
BELOW: The aliens communicate via Pop Culture
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