Ethan Hawke Made His Film Debut In This Underrated Sci-Fi Movie

The '80s was a special time for kid's sci-fi movies. "Short Circuit," "The Neverending Story," and, of course, "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" were all released in this decade and went on to become box office hits and beloved staples of the genre. What did they have in common? They all centered on meeting some otherworldly creatures and/or aliens.

It was Spielberg's success with "E.T." that inspired a lot of other filmmakers to create their own stories about kids encountering mysterious creatures. While some of these films were successful, most weren't, which kept audiences hungry for more Spielbergian adventures. By 1985, moviegoers had an unquenchable thirst for precocious, adventurous kids landing in strange scenarios — which should have been the perfect time to introduce three more of them.

"Explorers" is the story of three space-loving boys with a lot of heart and a familiar faces. Some of the film's youngsters would become stars, but the movie never received the kudos it deserved.

Tilt-A-Whirl spaceship

"Explorers" was directed by Joe Dante, who had achieved success with "Gremlins," and was the world's first introduction to future stars Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. Hawke's character, Ben, is a hardcore space lover who devours B-movies about aliens. He's the polar opposite of the thoughtful, brooding characters Hawke often plays these days. Ben is imaginative and impulsive, the kind of guy who dreams about bizarre technology and automatically enlists a friend to build it.

Phoenix portrays the budding scientist, Wolfgang, who makes Ben's dreams a reality. He's an easy target for bullies, with his highwater pants and huge glasses, and his dreams of blueprints for potentially dangerous alien technology.

One fried computer and demolished basement later, the two boys discover the dream device is a force field they can travel around in like a bubble. The first thing Ben does is creep on a girl he's crushing on, before deciding to launch into outer space. With help from their friend Darren (Jason Presson), the boys take an old Tilt-A-Whirl from a junkyard and build themselves a spaceship.

In the final act of the film, the kids make it to space, where their ship is intercepted, and they come face to face with extraterrestrials. If you're thinking of the Ridley Scott or Chris Carter type of alien, you're way off base. And, no, they aren't the lovable Spielberg kind either. "Explorer" aliens are more like Slimer from "Ghostbusters" mixed with Maurice from "Little Monsters." They're ugly, weird, and prone to bad jokes, which leaves the characters and some viewers disappointed, but is part of what makes the film unique.

Unique alien critters

The first two acts of "Explorers" are reminiscent of other '80s sci-fi children's films. It even uses the Spielberg trope of putting average people in exceptional situations. The main characters are ordinary kids with everyday problems like book-flinging bullies, unrequited crushes, and clueless parents — they just happen to make contact with an alien species. It's interesting, but not original, and that wasn't ideal in a decade full of Spielberg knock-offs.

The safer choice would have been to introduce the boys to adorably awkward aliens, like E.T., or destructive ones, like the Gremlins, but the film went with a bolder, more unique choice.

Unlike other family-friendly sci-fi at the time, the aliens aren't adorable critters with an affection for Reese's Pieces or little reptilian trouble makers with a strict feeding schedule. The aliens that Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren meet are couch potatoes with an endless supply of pop culture references. As the male, Wak, launches into a three-minute comedy routine, and his sister Neek flirts with Wolfgang, Ben's face fills with confusion and disappointment. He realizes these aren't the type of aliens who can tell him the secrets of the universe. They are just kids who have taken their dad's spaceship for a joy ride.

The movie gets a lot of hate for its version of extraterrestrials. On the heels of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Gremlins," another alien movie with kids was sure to create high expectations from moviegoers, and "Explorers" didn't live up to it. '80s audiences were used to aliens they could love or hate, and they weren't prepared for the awkward dim-wittedness of Wak and Neek.

Gene Siskel's critique of the movie sums up how the majority of audiences felt about the movie:

""Explorers" is pretty good when it comes to setting up the kids. They're a fresh, entertaining bunch, alright. But the film really bogs down when the kids, now launched into outer space, are captured by an alien spaceship, and meet creatures, and we were really rooting for something interesting ... [They] meet creatures that are really kind of dumpy ... While it was not bad, [there's] just not enough payoff when we get to outer space. That's what we were really looking for, something dazzling, and it's just not there."

Childhood wonder and imagination

The '80s fascination with kid friendly aliens may have seemed like the perfect climate for "Explorers," but the film just couldn't live up to the likes of Spielberg. At least, not in the alien department, but the film isn't all bad.

The special effects used in the film hold up pretty decently after 40 years, which is often not the case with older movies. Although this was Hawke and Phoenix's big screen debuts, the characters are portrayed decently, and they successfully pull viewers into their world.

While the film goes off the rails in the third act, it doesn't get enough praise for what it does in the previous two. The film's characters and their adventures focus on innocence and childhood wonder, which is the same thing audiences loved about other kids' flicks at the time.

Unfortunately, critics at the time chose to put all of their attention into the movie's eccentric aliens and forgot the main theme that draws audiences to films like this in the first place. It isn't really aliens, robots, or mischievous critters that makes kids sci-fi interesting, it's the genre's unique way of reminding viewers to see the world through the unlimited imagination of a child.

"Explorers" was a massive bomb when it was released back in 1985, but it's picked up a cult following in the years since and has a decent 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you're in the mood for a hidden gem full of childhood wonder, goofy creatures, and quality special effects, "Explorers" is well worth a watch.