Joe Dante’s homegrown sci-fi adventure takes to the stars in a definitive Collector’s Edition from Shout Select
Ben (Ethan Hawke) and Wolfgang (River Phoenix) are pre-teens whose dreams and waking lives are riddled with aspirations to reach beyond the stars. Buried in Sci-fi novels, comics, and re-runs of George Pal movies by day to avoid the attention of bullies and oblivious parents, Ben and Wolfgang’s only escape seems to be in their dreams of alien life and distant worlds. But lately, Ben’s been having wild recurring visions of a massive circuit board — seemingly beamed into his brain from parts unknown. When Ben and Wolfgang team up with mechanically-minded fellow outcast Darren (Jason Presson) to bring this dream to life, the trio realizes the sky’s no longer the limit when it comes to fulfilling their dreams of exploring outer space.
Explorers is one of those films that seemed to burrow its way into every other family’s VHS collection growing up. An initial disappointment at the box office when released, Explorers slowly found an audience as the format allowed other would-be blockbusters crowded out by the likes of Back to the Future or The Goonies to have a second chance on the small screen. Hot off the heels of Gremlins, Explorers sees Joe Dante’s wily sense of humor meld with an earnest love of sci-fi and boyhood adventure. However, comparisons with E.T. and other recent spectacles ran rampant, and the film’s tonal roller coaster between the fantastic and the fantastically tongue-in-cheek left some audiences more bemused than exhilarated.
On home video, though, the exploits of Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren feel…well, more at home. Dante and screenwriter Eric Luke truly capture the electric feeling of sneaking off in the dead of night to get up to all sorts of mischief, and translate just as well the impossibly complicated mechanics of creating one’s own spaceship into something that feels like an achievable weekend project with the right amount of bubble gum and elbow grease. It’s the perfect Saturday matinee for another rainy afternoon at home–which is how I first fell in love with this movie growing up.
As an adult, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how Explorers hasn’t lost its charm. It’s hard not to feel like part of the gang with the natural chemistry between the film’s three leads of Hawke, Phoenix, and Presson. All three break the mold of “Disney-fied” child actors of the period, to borrow a phrase from the film’s Special Features–they’re not afraid to be crass, bored, or blunt, and don’t feel the pressure to play up a hipness imposed on them by out-of-touch studio execs. As a result, all three feel like next-door-neighbors as much as protagonists.
This approach also lends Explorers’ unabashedly goofy sense of humor a great deal of sincerity–sure, it’s a film that’s super self-aware of its place among other recent sci-fi and “kids on bikes” Amblin films, but it reveres that subject matter because the characters at its core revere them too. It makes everything that plays out feel more like a kid’s wild-eyed attempt at making their own Hollywood dream picture–with all the weird, silly offhand details that come with the territory. Here, we get to have The Thing’s Rob Bottin design colorful aliens that spout off Bugs Bunny and Humphrey Bogart in one spliced sentence, as well as gargantuan guard robots that spout sniffing tubes like an overexcited puppy, all accompanied by then-cutting edge special effects by Star Wars pioneers Industrial Light & Magic. It’s a hell of a gateway sci-fi film for younger audiences while also giving their older co-viewers a healthy amount of nostalgia and thrills to disappear into themselves.
In a surprise presentation of both the equally sought-after Theatrical and Home Video cuts of the film, Shout Select brings Explorers back to home video in a stacked Collectors’ Edition release.
Shout presents both cuts of Explorers in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, accompanied by 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. The slightly-shorter Home Video cut of the film (106 minutes) is presented as the preferred version of the film on Disc One, with the Theatrical Version (109 minutes) presented on Disc Two. English subtitles are available solely for the feature films.
Both presentations of Explorers retain a warmth and washed-out quality that amps up the nostalgia factor, while still presenting a healthy amount of detail that utilizes all the advantages of a Blu-ray upgrade. Details from the bric-a-brac of Wolfgang’s basement to the designs of Rob Bottin’s creatures are well-represented, though a significant amount of dust flickers and other signs of age (especially in VFX shots) suggest this is more of a high-definition transfer of an aged print rather than a full-on restoration. However, such appearances are few and far between, and enhance the film’s nostalgic qualities than serve as any kind of distraction.
Audio channels are clear and distinct, almost a near opposite of the visual transfer’s negative qualities. Heavily favored sonic aspects are Jerry Goldsmith’s lush, soaring score and the quirky, vibrant foley work–especially noticeable in the trio’s first experimentation with alien technology as well as onboard a climactic alien craft.
The special features below are replicated across both discs in this set.
- A Science Fiction Fairy Tale–The Story of Explorers: A new, feature-length documentary about the production and legacy of Explorers, featuring interviews with Director Joe Dante, Screenwriter Eric Luke, Paramount Production Executive David Kirkpatrick, Paramount Junior Production Executive Darlene Chan, Sci-Fi Author & Explorers Superfan Ernest Cline, and Star Ethan Hawke. This is a surprisingly in-depth doc, full of glowing interviews and unexpected anecdotes–Wolfgang Petersen and Steven Spielberg were in the running to direct before Dante came aboard, and a who’s-who of 80’s child actors (like A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsley and the Lost Boys’ Coreys Feldman & Haim) tried out for the lead before a zero-credits Ethan Hawke won the role. Everyone also speaks candidly about the fast-paced production (to meet a studio-demanded Summer date) and the surprising initially negative reception of the film–before it eventually found a cult audience over the following decades on VHS.
- Deleted Scenes: Newly unearthed by Director Joe Dante from a personal betamax work print, this is the real treasure of Shout’s collector’s edition. Over half-an-hour of unfinished, watermarked deleted scenes are presented, with incomplete VFX and rough on-location audio. Most scenes focus on the trio’s home life on Earth, as well as scenes fleshing out Amanda Peterson’s Lori and Dick Miller’s Charlie. Joe Dante provides an optional commentary, detailing how these scenes ended up on the cutting room floor (and which ones deserved to end up back in the final cut).
- Interviews: Newly-filmed interviews with cinematographer John Hora and editor Tina Hirsch. John Hora reminisces fondly on his first reactions to Rob Bottin’s creature designs, and has an unexpected visit from Dick Miller (RIP). Tina Hirsch reflects on her first impressions of Joe Dante and the fun chaos of Explorers’ rapid production process.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Reversible Art with original poster art and new art by illustrator Ryan McGrath.
Explorers is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory.
Get it at Amazon: https://amzn.to/3vdsLfr
If you enjoy reading Cinapse, purchasing items through our affiliate links can tip us with a small commission at no additional cost to you.