It is the middle of the night and Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) has fallen asleep in his bedroom while watching a late showing of War of the Worlds on television. He has strange dreams as the TV set blares away, but could they be something more than inspired by his choice of viewing? He thinks he is receiving a message from somewhere beyond and when he wakes up he sketches the diagram he has seen in his dream, then uses his walkie talkie to contact his best friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix), a boy genius who is fascinated by science - but maybe not in the wee small hours of the morning...
Coming off the success of Gremlins the previous year, you might have thought that director Joe Dante would have been given carte blanche on his next project, but it was not to be. Explorers was never truly completed, with the studio releasing an edit of the footage Dante had shot up to the point they lost patience; not that it helped the film at the box office because it flopped. Part of the reason might have been that instead of a Spielberg sense of wonder for the finale, many felt the mood had been sabotaged by a contrary attitude towards its otherworldly entities.
There are three kids who play the title characters, with outsider Darren (Jason Presson) joining the other two when he saves Ben from a group of bullies. This trio might not be destitute, but they're having a hard time nonetheless with being incessantly picked on, parents who don't provide enough support and a general disappointment which is only leavened by the power of Ben's imagination. Oh, and Ben has an unrequited crush on Lori (Amanda Peterson), one of his classmates, as if all that wasn't enough.
The three of them represent a factor which will eventually propel them beyond the bounds of Earth, with Wolfgang the man of science, Darren the engineer, and Ben the visionary. Ben supplies the data from his dreams to Wolfgang and he proceeds to create a bubble of energy with his computer, a device he can barely control (oh, how this film loves casual destruction). They can make the bubble big enough to hold themselves, so Darren provides the parts for them to create their own junkyard spaceship that the bubble can contain. Working with the computer, they can now fly their makeshift ship, as they do on a test mission that makes it apparent that they are picking up signals from outer space.
As is often with Dante films, the plot, written by Eric Luke, owes a lot to the science fiction and pop culture of his childhood. Ben is a big fan of fifties sci-fi, but so is another character he is yet to meet, as we see in the final third. Perhaps the main sticking point with Explorers is that however inspired the conclusion is, it doesn't really solve the boys' problems; even Ben feels let down by what they find. If Dante had been offered more time to draw things to a more satisfying conclusion (it ends with on a fuzzy note of hope) the film would have appealed more, but as it is it puts across the notion that the comfort of imagination alone is no match for the big bad world of reality and all those TV shows and films Dante loves are a bad influence after all. The film may be sweet natured, but it's confused. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.