Explorers (Dante, 1985)

explorers2

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.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante, 1990)

Gremlins26

More wacky and experimental than its predecessor, Gremlins 2: The New Batch willfully celebrates film references and iconography within an absurd interior space of dysfunctional technology and communication. Joe Dante, always the master of subtext, plants some stunning critiques of big business under the guise of mainstream entertainment.

This time out the Gremlins take over a corporate mega-building in New York City, hatching, playing, and destroying with reckless abandon, hollowing American Capitalism from the inside out. The disjointed narrative isn’t as finely tuned or focused as the original, but Dante seems more concerned with set-pieces of debauchery, even the complex blocking of the Gremlins themselves, best on display in the genius Busby Berkley-inspired musical number. Even when Gremlins 2 skirts along the edge of flimsy ridiculousness, the overarching themes regarding corporate ethics, greed, and synergy feel especially current and provocative, a potent reminder how little our destructive economic practices have changed over the years.

The ‘burbs (Dante, 1989)

burbs

Shot on the Universal set that now permanently calls itself Wisteria Lane, Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs uses its seemingly peaceful suburban locale as a hunting ground for snoopy neighbors and secretive activity, where passive aggressive tactics and hidden agendas produce a wonderfully dark cinematic mosaic of collective doubt. Dante is a master at blurring genres and tones and The ‘burbs ranks as one of his strangest mixtures, gracefully walking the line between slapstick comedy and horror film.

A small group of male neighbors (Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun) awake from their mind-numbing routines when The Klopeks move in and raise concerns with their odd activity and complete isolation. The opening act is especially brilliant, introducing each character with a flair for the theatrical, isolating their strengths and weaknesses through sly camera movements and music parallels. In a film like The ‘burbs, space plays a crucial role, so the proximity between houses, lawns, and the connective street seems to constrict as the story progresses. Figurative and literal skeletons reside beneath the ground, within walls, even in car trunks, giving the film plenty of social subtext along with scary thrills. Even in the most benign residential spaces, shady dealings grow like weeds.

The ‘burbs subverts genre conventions by masking dark themes within confined locales, forcing the viewer to think about the horrific grey areas constantly surrounding us. In all of his best films, Dante uncovers the wars of everyday life; between people at odds, ideologies in conflict, and expectations of closure. Corey Feldman’s punk teenager Ricky knows best watching the entire finale from his front porch, flanked by slacker friends, loud music, and lawn chairs, only to proclaim, “We’re here to watch the show.” For Joe Dante, youth often equates to wisdom, and adulthood only spells distress and toil.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (Landis, Spielberg, Dante, Miller, 1984)

Thankfully for my purposes, George Miller’s segment “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (a remake of the Richard Matheson penned/Richard Donner helmed episode from 1963) turns out to be the best of an uninspiring bunch, exhibiting a sense of space and ambiguity the other stories lack.

Once again, Miller deals with battling environments, showing John Lithgow’s nervous passenger trapped inside a caged vision of technology while nature’s wrath (personified by the crazed monster on the wing) attempts to break through several manmade barriers

This separation disintegrates when Lithgow shoots out one of the plane’s windows and comes face to face with the beast, his head fittingly coated with a sheen of ice while the other passengers attempt to pull him back in and recover the sanitized environment of air travel.

Gremlins (Dante, 1984)

What an oddity. Gremlins functions as a compact blockbuster, built to impress a mass audience with special effects and shock value but also to challenge through a clever combination of horror, comedy, and social satire. Directed with punch by Joe Dante, the film is the brainchild of Hollywood’s brightest mainstream conductors, producer Steven Spielberg and writer Chris Columbus (who went on to direct countless tinsel town wonders like Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone). While not as blatantly critical of current Western politics as some of Dante’s other pictures, Gremlins harbors a distinct distaste for consumer America’s obsession with greed and power and the mass influx of foreign goods via new media. Dante and Columbus’ supporting fodder speak volumes – a Bank manager folds under the pressure of a money grubbing wench, two drunken police officer’s wilt when faced with chaos, and a paranoid war vet’s visions come true in the form of little green men. It’s also hilarious the Gremlins themselves show more depth of character than the humans, a disturbing irony considering they run amok with a clear will toward our destruction. Dante thankfully never shies away from political jockeying when making films, and Gremlins proves strong ideas can co-exist with grandiose explosions and pulsating monsters.

The Second Civil War (Dante, 1997)

I once heard that comedy, above all other genres can lead to the greatest truth, no matter how disturbing or uncomfortable the consequences. Whether or not that’s the case, this statement certainly describes many of the films by director Joe Dante, works that blend brutal political satire with cataclysmic reminders of drastic change. In The Second Civil War (made for HBO television), Dante explores a near-future America where the Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges) closes the borders of his state to the rest of the country. This aggressive move comes in response to the overwhelming influx of illegal and legal aliens (the Chinese have taken over Rhode Island). As the media outlet NN, the White House, and various other corporate and social entities scramble for a response, the situation turns chaotic quickly. The process, often hilarious and absurd (the Governor is in love with a Mexican reporter), shows an infrastructure crumbling under the pressure of egotistical ideologies from all sides, left and right, breaking the back of the constitution and throwing the country into war. The result is surprisingly bloody (at least for HBO’s early productions), and Dante brilliantly juxtaposes comedic moments with those of horror and death. The shear depth and range of Dante’s story is amazing, incorporating a multitude of issues into a comedic script ripe with classic one-liners and social commentary. The film is funny and entertaining, almost preposterous at times, but Dante cleverly masks his real intent with this more mainstream aesthetic. The Second Civil War wants to scare the living hell out of you, and it’s final images of Federal troops shooting at National Guardsmen accomplish just that. Dante might be the most political American filmmaker working today and his work marks a crucial dialogue between substance and content in Hollywood film. The Second Civil War, while a farce in tone, remains a staunch warning against ignorance, apathy, and closed-mindedness, something that unfortunately still rings true today.

The Screwfly Solution (Dante, 2006)

Once again Joe Dante brilliantly utilizes the hour long Master’s of Horror format to craft a devastating commentary on crucial political and social issues. He seems to be the only director Showtime has employed able to grasp the concept of less is more, showing just enough gore to wet the appetites of horror fans and compliment it with a socially relevant and entertaining story. In Dante’s glossy, vibrantly colorful modern day world, men begin killing women at alarming rates, an epidemic that follows a disease vector and has seemingly no beginning nor end. Scientists can’t figure out why these mass murders are occurring, just that it’s some sort of bio-terrorism hell-bent on destroying as many people as possible. Dante creeps through each scene with an eerie attention to the personal fear and horror engulfing his main characters while showing glimpses of the global chaos occurring around them. The Screwfly Solution becomes a brutal critique of man’s ignorance toward the worsening state of the environment and his final solution doesn’t pull any punches. If man is the pest, mother nature must react accordingly. Unlike other Master’s of Horror regulars like John Caprenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento, Dante has flourished with the time constraints of hour long television, giving tantalizing and horrifying hints to where man might be headed if certain political and environmental problems stay unresolved.