Explorers (1985) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

These kids are taking their imaginations out of this world, literally!

Explorers one of many youth-oriented, wish-fulfillment movies from the 1980s, but this one contains a little something more. It was the big screen debut for several notable actors while delivering the enjoyment of the 1950s Saturday sci-fi matinees.

First Impressions

The trailer for Explorers presents a trio of young boys who discover a way to make a spaceship and travel into outer space. It’s a reverse scenario from other sci-fi films where the aliens come to Earth. In this case the humans will travel to them. It doesn’t look scary or dangerous, but is filled with a sense of wonder and awe as these three boys get a chance to visit with extraterrestrials.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


Explorers title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Science-nerd and junior high schooler Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) is enamored with retro science-fiction movies, staying up late to watch whatever is airing on the local television station. One night he dreams of flying over an alien landscape that he recognizes as a circuit board. Awakened, he draws the design to the best of his ability, but missing one central component. He shows it to his even more stiff and awkward friend Wolfgang Müller (River Phoenix) on the way to school. Local school bully Steve Jackson (Bobby Fite) and his gang fight Ben after school but he is saved by fellow student and tough loner Darren Woods (Jason Presson).

Ben befriends Darren and offers to allow him to hangout with him and Wolfgang instead of going to his troubled home. Wolfgang puts together a circuit based on Ben’s drawing which results in strange spherical holes in Wolfgang’s basement bookshelf. Later the boys retry the experiment with the circuit diagram and Wolfgang is able to show what they created–a spherical force field that is apparently indestructible. The boys realize they can alter the size of this bubble and use it to fly with the help of Wolfgang’s computer. After sending Wolfgang around a hillside and into the dirt, the trio sends Ben into the air one night to peek in Lori Swenson’s (Amanda Peterson) window, a girl he has a crush on.

The trio decide to make a spaceship and visit the junkyard where Darren shows them an old carnival tilt-a-whirl car that they can use as the chassis. By this time they are all having dreams about the circuit board. They christian their new vehicle the Thunder Road, after the Bruce Springsteen song, and fly past the drive-in movie, where a cheesy Italian sci-fi flick is playing called Star Killer. They are chased off by a police helicopter piloted by Charlie Drake (Dick Miller) and begin to be pulled into outer space by some other commands to their computer. Wolfgang inverts the axis, sending them crashing back down to Earth. Ben is super excited by the possibilities that the Thunder Road offers, but no one else is.


Wolfgang, Ben and Darren experiment with a new circuit design brought to them in a dream.

That night, Ben has another dream, this time with Lori in it, and the missing piece of the diagram. Ben calls Wolfgang and they design the missing piece which is revealed to create oxygen for them inside the bubble. Charlie discovers the crashed “spaceship” and confronts Ben, who runs off. The three hop into their vehicle and take off into the sky. The bubble now producing oxygen, is grabbed by the strange commands again and races through a wormhole into distant space. The Thunder Road is pulled into a large spaceship. Again Ben is super excited to see what may be waiting for them, but the other two are not.

The three step out of their craft and start exploring the larger ship. They become separated as they search for the inhabitants of the larger vessel. Ben and Wolfgang encounter a large robotic spider, while Darren sits in a chair that connects his mind to the dream state, and all the other shared memories of those that have shared the dream. Ben finds Darren and then Wolfgang, who is sitting talking to Neek (Leslie Rickert), a goofy-looking green-skinned alien. They are then introduced to Wak (Robert Picardo), a male alien that speaks almost exclusively in quotes from old television shows and films. Ben tries to explain that those are just TV. Suddenly a larger ship captures the one they are in.

Wak and Neek say that it’s space pirates, but it turns out it’s only their father. They are alien siblings that have taken his spaceship for a joyride and only wanted to meet some aliens from Earth. The boys are let go, with Wak providing Ben an amulet that he says is “the stuff that dreams are made of,” to quote The Maltese Falcon. Arriving back on Earth they crash into a lake where Lori, who is now sharing the same dreams, sees them. Back in class the next day it’s obvious that Lori knows about their adventure, as she passes Ben a note asking if he had a nice trip. Suddenly the amulet begins to glow and all four kids share the same dream, flying over a new circuit, wondering where it may take them. In the dream, Lori and Ben hold hands.

We come in peace.” – Ben Crandall


The alien dream gives them a force bubble of varying size that can move at infinite velocities.

History in the Making

Explorers is a first for several things. This is the first science-fiction film for director Joe Dante, who up to this point was making horror-comedies. His previous work includes Piranha, The Howling, part of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Gremlins. Explorers represented a partial shift in Dante’s style, only in as much as the film dealt with science-fiction themes of exploration and meeting aliens, plus the use of a much younger set of protagonists. It also had a much lighter style than Dante’s previous work, which all centered around shocks and scares. Tonally it’s a lot closer to Gremlins, but only due to the humor that Dante continued to bring out in his films. Explorers allowed him to more directly reference old TV and film properties overtly, which is one of his signature styles. Many of Dante’s films already contain references to old cartoons (such as ones by Tex Avery or Chuck Jones), this allowed him reference them in a more obvious way since the aliens had learned about Earth culture from watching old reruns from long-wave television signals. He also continued to use a number of actors that show up in a lot of his work, which include Belinda Balaski, Dick Miller, and Robert Picardo.

Picardo got his start (in film) with Dante in 1981s The Howling, a werewolf film that came out around the same time as An American Werewolf in London. He would continue working with Dante in films like Innerspace, Amazon Women on the Moon, and The ‘Burbs as well as becoming the holographic doctor on the long-running TV show Star Trek: Voyager. What Explorers does provide is the film debuts of two important actors: River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke. This was Phoenix’s only sci-fi film in a short career that ended only eight years after the release of this film. It was however a career filled with standout roles, either publicly adored–such as his role as young Henry Jones, Jr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or critically acclaimed –Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho, and his final film, The Thing Called Love. Hawke on the other hand has made over 70 films and ventured back into the sci-fi realm several times with films like Gattaca and Predestination, as well as worked on non-genre film with some great co-stars and directors, like Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams, Training Day with Denzel Washington, and the Before-trilogy with director Richard Linklater.


Since sitting inside a bubble is uncomfortable, the trio decide to build the “Thunder Road,” a spaceship for exploring the solar system.


Dante takes the classic idea of the sci-fi/alien visiting Earth storyline and twists it into a new thing. The films with which he grew up, like those referenced in the movie–War of the Worlds and This Island Earth, feature aliens coming to Earth and in some cases taking humans back into space with them. Explorers turns that notion on its head by sending humans into space (three young teen boys) and making them the aliens that visit someone else. Here the aliens use technology to subconsciously place dreams of how to build a device that will take them to the stars (as the future story by Carl Sagan, Contact, would do) rather than the aliens coming to Earth because of a message sent by humans (as was the idea behind the recently reviewed Starman).

Since the film takes place from the perspective of these Junior High aged boys, there is no huge technology or funding behind their trip. They are using the tools at their command, which at the time included home computers that allowed the creation of many incredible simulations; something that was undreamed of only decades before. Following along with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a number of other youth-oriented 80s films, like The Last Starfighter or TRON, Explorers speaks more of the wonderment and excitement of meeting aliens, and not with the dangers more commonly associated with first contact, such as injury and death. Dante portrays these aliens as goofy and light-hearted, allowing them to be a humorous moment after the unexpected space-flight and creepy, almost abandoned spaceship. Wak and Neek, while still humans in suits, have an other worldly look, thanks to the makeup designs of Rob Bottin, the same designer behind the creatures in Piranha, The Howling, and the 1982 remake of The Thing.


Playing multiple parts, character actor Robert Picardo (a staple of Joe Dante films) is seen here as Star Killer, a poorly dubbed Italian sci-fi film.

Societal Commentary

Explorers speaks about several things important to young boys: adventure, girls and friends & family. The title of the film alone is enough to give the audience a sense of adventure. It’s about three friends exploring the world around them. But rather than just venturing up to the nearby hills on their bikes, or into the creek that runs behind their homes, these kids build a device that allows them to explore outside their galaxy. The film also deals with them exploring the changing world around them as they transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s no coincidence that the boys are in Junior High School (called the Charles M. Jones Junior High School, after cartoonist Chuck Jones). This transitory schooling level is the dividing point between being a child (in Elementary School) and moving into High School where one becomes more self-sufficient and adultlike. They begin to discover girls as well as take adventures further and further from home as they learn about the world around them.

Family and friendship is also an important aspect of the film. Primarily parents in this story are absent, which allows the fantasy that the boys have a greater freedom. Ben’s father is never seen in the story, and his mother makes only two brief appearances checking in on her son, but otherwise mostly oblivious to what he’s doing. Wolfgang’s parents are both distracted parents, having numerous things going on in their house to keep them from attending to their five children. His father is single-mindedly searching for a “bug bomb,” also oblivious to his son’s experiments in the basement. Darren has only a father, and one that may be considered abusive, based on the inferences in the film. He is unseen, but the home environment presented outside the house is one that he is unsure he wants to revisit. Finally Wak and Neek’s father is apparently not much different from the boy’s parents. He pays little attention to his children, which allows them to take the spaceship for a joyride. When he finds and confronts them, he is loud and bullying, a character that Darren recognizes in his own life. This family life was a more common occurrence in 80s films (sci-fi or not) than it had been before.


Ben and Wolfgang explore the spaceship that called them into outer space.

The Science in The Fiction

Unlike many recent sci-fi films, Explorers does not get hung up on the scientific accuracy of technology. In that sense it’s very much like the films that Dante references from the 50s. It’s more about the adventure and action of the world than the technical details. With that being said, the ability for the boys to create something advanced with nothing more than a home PC is not as ludicrous as it may seem. By 1985, home computers were able to perform numerous functions that they had not been able to do even a couple years before. Graphics, sounds, and memory capacity were all growing at an exponential rate. So should a suitably advanced race provide blueprints to create a device allowing for interstellar travel, having a wunderkind genius boy with access to cutting edge 1985 computer technology create that device would not necessarily be something impossible.


In talking with Neek, the boys realize that these aliens are only children, having learned about the Earth from watching North American pop culture from TV broadcasts.

The Final Frontier

Explorers feels like an inverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, with the boys being the aliens that land in someone else’s backyard. It does a good job of capturing the fun of hanging out with your friends as a youth and working on grand projects that might go nowhere. It was also a precursor of the self-reflexive, self-aware films that would come over the next several decades that would poke fun at the history of sci-fi, horror, or fantasy films by containing easter eggs and allusions to other stories and tales. It was definitely a spring board for Joe Dante, allowing him to move on to greater films and notoriety, as well as the young actors in the film. Explorers creates a sense of nostalgia and is an interesting time capsule of the mid-80s in a way that is a little more real and honest than some other youth films. In fact, it’s literally “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

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