TAKE TWO ON THE MOVIES by Daniel M. Kimmel
There’s an old Hollywood joke that it’s a town where everyone is first in line to be second. Being original is risky. Being the first to try to replicate a surprise hit often is not. This can be seen by the explosion in SF on screen following the success of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977. Hollywood had always had an arm’s length relationship with science fiction, churning out B movies and willing to take a chance on a more ambitious project if someone with clout pushed hard enough, but after those two blockbusters scored big the land rush was on.
By 1980 major directors and stars could be seen in a variety of SF entries. Some were hits, like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Superman II,” and some were flops like “Heartbeeps” and “Flash Gordon,” but that was true of musicals, westerns, and comedies as well. Science fiction was now worth taking a gamble on, and George Lucas’s establishment of Industrial Light and Magic allowed filmmakers to dazzle audiences with special effects like they had never seen. When Steven Spielberg’s “E. T.” (1982) became a phenomenal hit, it ensured that SF would have a permanent place on the cinematic menu.
While the impact of those hit movies continues to reverberate decades later, one aspect proved harder to clone. At the center of “E.T.” was a prepubescent boy whose daily life of challenges at school and at home was disrupted by the arrival of a visitor from the stars. It led to a spate of movies focusing on tween and teen protagonists, some of which might appeal to adult audiences like “War Games” or “Back to the Future.” However, there were also the films that were pitched to the demographic who would come to be known as Gen X, especially its younger half. Some might be forgotten today, but many still have a hold on those who saw them then: “The Last Starfighter,” “D.A.R.Y.L.,” “Real Genius,” “Flight of the Navigator,” “Weird Science,” “My Science Project,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
Now lest I be accused of being consumed by nostalgia myself, I’m a Baby Boomer and I reviewed those films. In taking a fresh look at “Explorers” (1985) it turned out to be a movie with a far more interesting pedigree than I remembered. Indeed, it is an interesting and somewhat subversive response to “E.T.” and Spielberg’s never-ending quest for his lost youth. Directed by Joe Dante between his much bigger hits of “Gremlins” (1984) and “Innerspace” (1987), it sucks you into what you think is going to be an “E.T.” clone before taking us places Spielberg never dared.
It opens with what will be the first of many pop culture references, some obvious and some not. A TV set in a boy’s bedroom is tuned to a showing of “The War of the Worlds” (1953). The boy, Ben, has fallen asleep, but for the modern viewer it’s a wake-up call. Ben is played by Ethan Hawke. Yes, that Ethan Hawke. He turned 15 while the film was in production and this was his first movie, four years before his breakout role in “Dead Poet’s Society.”
In some ways the film is very much in Spielberg territory. Ben has an oddball friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix) who’s a science nerd. They’re both picked on by bullies, with Ben being rescued by Darren (Jason Presson), whose own toughness masks his own family woes: a dead mother and an unemployed father. Ben is also feeling the first stirrings of young love as he has a crush on Lori (Amanda Peterson), a classmate and neighbor. The boys are linked by strange dreams which seem to echo “Tron” (1982), showing weird geometric shapes fitting into patterns. The dreams will play into Wolfgang’s experiments, allowing him to develop a forcefield with which they will create their spacecraft, a converted amusement park vehicle. There’s even an authority figure who looks to disrupt the boys’ plans when they start testing their ship, much like the mysterious figure with keys in “E.T.” who turns out to be a scientist tracking the extraterrestrial.
However, for fans of director Joe Dante, there are already plenty of signs not to be taken in by these surface similarities. Besides the multiple movie references to SF films like “War of the Worlds,” “This Island Earth,” “It Came from Outer Space,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Thing,” there’s the middle school named for Charles M. Jones (the legendary Warner Bros. animator), the spacecraft dubbed “Thunder Road” (after a Bruce Springsteen song) and, most tellingly, the appearance of character actor Dick Miller. Miller was a veteran of Roger Corman movies (most notably of the 1959 horror comedy “Bucket of Blood”) who had a long career and has a role in nearly every Dante film. As the official who seems ready to bust the kids, he’s a far less reassuring figure than Peter Coyote’s scientist in “E.T.” Yet he’s the adult who ends up giving his blessing to the project when he sees them take off into the night sky and says, “Nice going, kid.”
It’s when they get out into space that it becomes clear that we’ve left Spielbergland behind. In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” we never get to go inside the alien spaceship. Now the three boys find themselves inside a large alien ship confronted by Wak, a truly weird and rubbery looking alien. (Wak is voiced by Robert Picardo, who also appears in the fake “Starkiller” movie seen at a drive-in and may be best known to SF fans as the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.”) The script – by Eric Luke – now goes into overdrive with so many pop culture references you may not be able to keep up.
“I’ve waited all my life to say this,” announces Ben, “We come in peace.”
Wak’s response is, well, wacky: “Hey, what’s up doc?” Indeed, Wak proceeds to sing the theme song from the TV sitcom “Mr. Ed,” do the “Tarzan” yell, and mimics everyone from Ed Sullivan to Groucho Marx to Bob Hope, slipping into a Bogart voice (from “The Maltese Falcon”) to refer to the “stuff that dreams are made of.” It turns out that Wak and his sister Neek have been sending the dream images to the boys to help them build their ship, all the while absorbing their knowledge of Earth from the TV signals they’ve picked up in space.
And then comes one more twist. The arrival of a huge and threatening alien might seem to be a new threat to the boys and it is, just not the one they or the audience have been expecting. It’s Wak and Neek’s father, who seems to be upset that his children have been making their own contact with Earth. A chastised Wak suggests it’s time for the boys to go, with Neek, in yet another movie reference, telling them “We’ll always have Paris.”
They return to Earth and end up losing the Thunder Road in the process, so it’s not clear when they’ll get to see their alien friends again. Yet these three misfits seem to have grown up in the process, having a sense of accomplishment for completing their adventure. The proof of that is when we see Ben and his friends flying through the air in a dream and being joined by Lori. Through an amulet given to him by Neek they’re sharing the same dream, including Lori who joins hands with Ben.
If we accept that humanity hasn’t actually met any real space aliens yet, then the aliens in our fiction are metaphors for some aspect of us. What Ben, Wolfgang and Darren discover is that being a kid is the same whether you’re a human or whatever it is Wak and Neek are. They all have dreams of what is possible while consuming pop culture and dealing with family issues. They take risks as well. The boys build and fly their spacecraft without contemplating how dangerous it is, while Wak and Neek go for a joyride and engage in forbidden communication with humans. The reason it’s forbidden is because all that Earth pop culture sends the message that humans don’t treat visitors from space very well.
“Explorers” became more of a cult film than a box office hit (although a remake has been in development for several years now). It may be because it wasn’t about the alien as savior or monster, but about the aliens as well, pretty much like us, no matter how different they initially seem. It’s hard to say how the kids in “E.T.” will be different from having met an alien, but there’s no question that Ben and friends return from their close encounter not only more self-assured, but ready to face whatever life has in store for them next.
Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award, given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. In addition to short stories, he is the author of Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel and Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.