Part fable, part Science Fiction, Joe Dante’s Explorers contains a simplistic and childish worldview, pushing it’s potential weighty material under a mountain of pubescent melodrama. The story of three kids (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and James Presson) who build a spaceship from the blueprints of a dream, might be Dante’s least interesting picture. The film completely loses its footing when the trio ascend into the heavens following their call to adventure, only to find their alien counterparts.
It’s an interesting premise – the parallels and connections and miscommunications between two groups of kids from different planets converging over mass entertainment – but the execution continuously disappoints with the dated set design and special effects. Being a big budget blockbuster, it’s understandable why Dante relies on the most modern technologies of the time, but a more subtle approach to this sequence would connect better with the coming-of-age narrative of the first half.
Explorers has a lot to say about negative imagery, repetition patters of television, and human fear of the unknown, but the main characters feel too young and naive to realize the gravity of these implications, making their journey somewhat moot. Dante’s best films create a binary between the adult world and that of children, showing an inherent generational conflict between innovative progress and repressive stasis. Explorers lacks such a dynamic theme, except on the fringes when Dante cuts away from the children and briefly references their clueless parents. For the first time, Dante’s critiques don’t feel warranted, or fair, as if his target is too vast and vague to give a human face.