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Explorers: Exploring Childhood Escapism

Paracinema Magazine Magazine Article June 2011

Explorers: Exploring Childhood Escapism

Joe Dante's 1985 science fiction fantasy, Explorers, is a film that, much like many of Dante's movies, captures the core of youth in a way that translates on a personal level with the inner child of many viewers. Dante transmits this emotionally driven sentiment with the use of thunder, rain and wind, the mystical Jerry Goldsmith music and, most significantly, the look in the eyes of a young boy as he stares with wonderment at the science fiction cinema that captivates his vast imagination. This interchanges with an atmospheric innocence that stems from an internal sense of marvel and imagination, and is projected onto the screen in a way that almost immediately puts the viewer in that same state of mind. It's a frame of mind that would become the base creation of nostalgia for children as they grow-up and away from the innocence that was once had.

We all want to escape in one way or another, whether it be from work, from difficult family affairs or whatever other bullshit that may come up and make life strenuous. By the same token, a need for departure is simply driven by that desire for adventure, a need to have fun, and that can only come by taking a chance. For the characters in Explorers, their drive covers both aspects, each one reflective of the individual character's needs and ambitions. For the film's main character, Ben (Ethan Hawke), his motivation is provided by a curiosity influenced by his vast imagination. His dreams are filled with what he perceives as messages, and he believes wholeheartedly that these messages are meant to guide him to something greater. In many ways, we all believe we are poised for something more, but Ben's determination to attain this otherworldly experience is too strong to simply grow out of. Basically, his spirit cannot be contained.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Darren's (Jason Presson) urge to get away seems to be more about necessity, specifically with there being subtle hints that his dad could be slightly abusive towards him. This shows in the type of kid that Darren is, as he’s a bit scrappy and can clearly take care of himself if the situation calls for it. He also makes random references to his father, particularly noting that he likes to drink a lot of beer. However, I think what’s most telling is his initial decision to hang out with Ben, which appears to be less about spending time with a friend and more about not wanting to go home. All of this culminates in what is a clear indication that his father could be domineering in a physical way towards Darren. Even if this assumption of abuse is incorrect on my part, there is certainly truth to the fact that Darren has a tough home life in one way or another. Darren desperately needs to escape from the seriousness of his world that, for a boy as young as he, is slightly unfair. He needs to be a kid, and while you could look at the collective group's journey into space as their ultimate escape, for Darren, escapism is achieved through the opportunity to finally be a kid with his new friends, something he seems to not have had before this point in his life.

Wolfgang (River Phoenix) is what I would consider the wildcard of the trio, as he is more intrigued by what is out there on a scientific level. I see him as the one character whose arc does not necessitate escape, as with his experiments and the madness of his odd and chaotic family, he has almost attained that aspect of youthful desire. He's already free to explore, if you will. More or less, Wolfgang works as a logical anchor to Ben and Darren, however, anchor or not, he has no problem with setting sail when the time comes and he realizes there is so much to be discovered when chasing something bigger.

While it is the three boys that are the superficial focus of this incredible journey, they aren't the only ones that have set their targets on exploration. Neek and Wak (Leslie Rickert and Robert Picardo), the alien life forms that Ben, Darren and Wolfgang come into contact with, mirror the boys curiosity as it is they who make the initial communication with the hopes of getting a response. As much as the boys are fascinated by these otherworldly beings and their surroundings, Neek and Wak share an equal interest in the world that the boys live in. This shows in their obsession with television, which besides being a tool used by the human race as a form of escape, is a small window into the unknown for the aliens. Of course, it is revealed that both Wak and Neek are also children, and being an extraterrestrial does not exclude them from the innocence and curiosity that comes with youth. As much as they were curious about what's out there for them to discover, maybe they too were simply looking for new friends to play with.

One character in Explorers that really ties everything together is that of Charlie Drake (Played by Dante regular, Dick Miller), a helicopter pilot that works as the adult representation of lost innocence once again realized. Initially, Charlie comes off as a tyrannical, oppressive adult to the children, but there’s a powerful revelation that Charlie's interest in what these kids are doing is reflective upon his own childhood. Charlie gives the strong impression that he had childhood dreams and desires that seem to mirror Ben‘s, but for whatever reason, Charlie was never fortunate enough to fulfill the ambitions that he once had. Witnessing Ben, Darren and Wolfgang living 'his' dream brings Charlie an intense swell of nostalgia, and that is essentially the core of Explorers (especially when coming from an adult perspective). Whether or not it is Charlie that was given his chance to escape is moot, as he is almost liberated in a way by seeing someone else fulfill their aspirations, which in a sense, is a way in which his dream can be put in perspective. The fulfillment of someone else's dreams is enough to bring back a sense of spirit for Charlie.

Furthering the motif of escapism for Ben, Darren and Wolfgang is the idea of spending time with one another; building a bond that, while shared by the three boys, is one that is shared by anyone with the dream to do something grand. We all have a need, a want, a desire to do something that is bigger than we are, and that seems to be the strongest when we are young. Most everyone has aspirations growing up; often these ambitions are likely unattainable, but without them there is a slight loss of hope, therefore, their importance is incredible as it shapes who we all grow up to be. What seems to be the most important piece of this puzzle is friendship and the time spent with those that stand besides you no matter how different you or your dreams may be.