Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Courtesy of Shout Select, we’ll be looking at Joe Dante’s cult family adventure Explorers and the production history that led to the theatrical cut that was examined for this feature.
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan
It seems so long ago, the time before the globe engaged with the internet or the allure of home entertainment which has kept the neglected youth shackled to their home confinements, the promise of vast magical vistas only two blocks away or the bewildering discovery of romantic galaxies swirling above our own backyards.
That aura of youthful inspiration and wonderment can vaguely be found pulsating at the core of the affectionate yet deeply flawed Explorers.
There’s an element of playful curiosity and adolescent social awkwardness that permeates through what we see of Eric Luke’s nostalgic screenplay. It’s mostly captured through the inspired casting of Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix who made their screen debuts here in Joe Dante’s ambitious follow up to Gremlins. In the wake of Phoenix’s short lived and brilliant acting career, it’s clear to see that his portrayal of ostracized prodigy Wolfgang Muller was a far cry from his own persona and an early step in his methodical approach towards his craft. Wolfgang’s friendship with Ben (Ethan Hawke) is the spirit that establishes that sense of wonder that Dante attempts to capture and their ingenious chemistry is what earns our investment in their galactic journey. Jason Presson, who was coming hot off the vastly underrated The Stone Boy, adequately holds his own as the benevolent kid from the wrong side of the tracks, but due to his backstory, as well as most of the family drama and character development being forcefully left on the cutting room floor, he merely serves as an unneeded third wheel.
Charlie Drake, portrayed by the always-reliable Dante collaborator Dick Miller, serves as the future of what these adventurous explorers will become: a withered man who once shared their lust for the unexplained and is still clinging on to his remaining ebullience despite the dense plight of blue-collar life. Miller is such a professional that all of that manages to come across in his limited presence on screen. There’s an intriguing ebb and flow that hints at revelations these kids soon discover after they’ve been lightly foreshadowed by Drake’s brief introduction, which is a miracle when considering the circumstances of Tina Hirsch’s hastily rushed editing job. There’s an extremely insightful documentary included with this release called A Science Fiction Fairytale: The Story of Explorers that reveals much about this troubled production and the 195-minute rough cut that contained material that could’ve potentially added numerous layers of depth and characterization. Perhaps, though, cinematographer John Hora’s confession of not seeing eye-to-eye with Rob Bottin’s goofy alien design aesthetics shows that perhaps not all of this film’s problems are connected to the studio’s insistence on releasing an unfinished product.
An obvious element that’s definitely missing is the blooming relationship, or lack thereof, between Ben and Lori (Amanda Peterson). Lori’s briefly introduced as a love interest who Ben desperately pines for and then she’s completely gone until they share that Spielbergian dream flying sequence and hold hands while exchanging a seemingly awkward kiss. This sequence was interestingly alluded to by Joe Dante from an idea he toyed around with concerning a philosophical theory that was in vogue at the moment referred to as “world mind.” Dante also explains the peculiar sequence that precedes it when the three youths in Thunder Road reach extraterrestrial counterparts Wak and Neek, finding that everything is in fact circular and not as disparate as our imaginations would lead us to believe. It’s also a showcase for Joe Dante’s pop culture swagger, though we did get visual inclinations to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity along the way. An interesting aside to Robert Picardo’s performance of Wak was his improv-by-necessity approach to playing that role. His costume was apparently so uncomfortable that he became borderline delusional with his comic routines, which might explain why veteran voice actor Frank Welker (Scooby Doo, Where Are You?) assisted in providing an extra vocal performance for that character. It’s absolutely a fascinating sight to behold.
The aforementioned documentary is the highlight of this release and makes this a must-own for aficionados of Joe Dante and roundabout cinephiles in general. The only complaint one might find is the over-abundance of commentary from Ready Player One author Ernest Cline. He frankly adds nothing of value to the conversation, and those who enjoy his work are sure to find his indulgences covered elsewhere. Perhaps we could have gotten more interesting facts about this fascinating production to replace his two cents. All-in-all, Explorers is a frustrating but likable film and still somehow manages to muster awe and wonder despite its off-putting shift in tone in the finale and lack of meaningful components. Shout Select has put together a fine release that captures the best available that Explorers has to offer.
Explorers Special Features
- Includes The Home Video & Theatrical Cuts Of The Film
- NEW “A Science Fiction Fairy Tale: The Story Of Explorers” – Featuring New Interviews With Director Joe Dante, Screenwriter Eric Luke, Star Ethan Hawke, And More! (65 min.)
- NEW Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary By Joe Dante
- NEW Interviews With Cinematographer John Hora And Editor Tina Hirsch
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory beginning May 25th, 2021.