Long before “Spy Kids,” the mid-‘80s had plenty of adventure movies starring kids. But unlike flicks such as “Cloak and Dagger,” “Goonies,” or “The Monster Squad,” “Explorers” is not about kids defeating bad guys, but rather is a brainy sci-fi drama about the thrill of discovery.
“Explorers” stars 14-year-old Ethan Hawke in his acting debut (other than one community theater play). Hawke plays Ben Crandall, a science enthusiast who’s been having strange dreams. He draws a picture of a circuit board from his dream and gives it to his friend Wolfgang (future Hollywood tragedy River Phoenix), his even geekier friend who conducts experiments in his basement, including teaching a mouse to talk via a computer. Wolfgang makes a circuit based on Ben’s dream that, when activated, reprograms his computer to generate an invisible, indestructible, floating sphere. Along with tough-kid Darren (still unknown Jason Presson), they eventually determine that the field can be moved on command and become big enough to hold people. What’s more, everything inside the field is unaffected by inertia, regardless of whatever movements the bubble makes. This part of the movie has aged well. Despite being impossible, the way each discovery is presented along with the logical progression of ideas makes the situation believable.
The kids eventually decide to make a spaceship using the seat from an old Tilt-a-Whirl ride as the base of the cabin, which will float inside the bubble. On their first flight over town, they crash through a drive-in theater, get spotted by a police helicopter, and momentarily lose control of their ship when some other force takes control. Later, they finally decide to leave Earth to wherever this other force wants to take them, resulting in the strangest part of the movie by far. It turns out the alien intelligence that sent the dream in the first place is a green, potbellied, foam-rubber alien (voiced by Robert Picardo of “Star Trek: Voyager”) who speaks almost entirely in movie quotes and impersonations from Earth television. It is actually weirder than it sounds. This part of the movie is so different from the beginning that it’s hard to reconcile the two halves as being from the same film. To their credit, these young actors take the material completely seriously, giving impressive performances for newcomers; their characters are real, nuanced, and believable throughout.
Ultimately, “Explorers” is like “This Island Earth” for kids, a movie that Ben is even seen watching during the film. There’s a lot of stuff going on under the surface of the movie as well; each of the boys has a different situation at home, but all are willing to give that life up for the chance to explore the stars. In what seems like a throwaway subplot, the cop in the helicopter that spotted them becomes obsessed with finding them. Apparently the cop wanted to be an astronaut or something and the subtext is that you’ll always regret it if you don’t follow your dreams—literally, in Ben’s case. Even the weird ending seems like it’s trying to have deeper meaning, but it never really comes together; is it a comment on media proliferation? Is it about violence on television, which the boys get a short lecture on from the aliens? Whatever it’s trying to do, the movie kind of loses it at the end. But the first hour is still fun for anyone who’s ever had a science kit instead of a skateboard.