Would you believe me if I told you that I’m just learning, right now as I clack-clack-clack away at the keyboard, as I sit down to write an article about the 1985 movie Explorers, right now, this instant, I just learned that both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix are in this movie?
Frankly, I don’t care if you believe me, because I will carry the shame of this moment with me forever.
I watched this movie probably a hundred times, but in fairness, I was a child so I doubt I knew who any actors were in general, let alone those two punk kids. As more evidence of how dumb children are, I also figured this was one of the most popular movies ever. I mean, I watched it all the time at home on my VCR, so why wouldn’t it be?
Turns out Explorers isn’t just overlooked today but was upon its release as well. It was more or less considered a flop, for which we have Freddie Mercury to blame. Being released one day before Live Aid turned out to be a pretty bad marketing choice. Oops!
But this is some damn fine kids-do-crazy-stuff-without-adults-ever-noticing-somehow cinema that only the 1980s could have produced.
We have uber-nerd Ben (Ethan Hawke), who pulls a Tesla and has vivid dreams of such fantastical things as circuit diagrams. But he remembers these dreams and consults the even nerdier — and well-dressed — Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who has the actual chops to tell whether Ben’s dreams actually mean anything. Then there’s Darren (Jason Presson), who also happens to be a character in the movie.
Eventually, Ben’s dreams turn into an invention that allows the kids to create a bubble capable of space travel. Yes, I am a grown man and I just wrote that sentence.
The best part of this movie is when the kids harvest an old amusement park for parts and start putting together their spaceship out of a Tilt-a-Whirl car and various electronic parts. This scene may be solely responsible for my need to just stop and look at electronic stuff at every garage sale or thrift store and want to take it apart.
I also love that children are depicted welding and using power tools (with proper eye protection, albeit). I’m surprised they didn’t have cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, too.
But it really gave me, as a kid at the time, that sense of, “hey, maybe I can find a way to go to space!” And like a lot of other movies of the time, Explorers reminds us that science is damn cool and Mr. Wizard is a damn saint.
There’s also a fun musical number and an extraterrestrial encounter with what turns out to be other kids traversing spacetime for a joyride.
Explorers never got the credit it deserved, although it did pick up a little bit of a cult following thanks to VHS. It’s well overdue for a comeback — and hey, you can get your friends to watch it with you by telling them who’s in it.
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