About 20 years ago I enjoyed one of the childhood pleasures that my kids will never understand: browsing a video rental store looking for things to watch on a long weekend. My dad, enjoying movies about as much as I did, would often let me wander around a Blockbuster or a Hollywood Video in an aimless meandering journey to find whatever bad science fiction movie I hadn’t yet stumbled across. Most of the movies I found were worthless drivel, but they taught me a lot about bad writing, bad special effects, and essentially what not to do as a storyteller.
Still, sometimes you stumble across a gold nugget in the stream of VHS.
Explorers is a sci-fi movie with a cult following. My 8 year old self had no idea what that meant, which didn’t matter because no one had ever told me about the movie anyway. I do remember being intrigued at the basic premise; kids not much older than me at the time built a spaceship themselves and have adventures flying it. Anyone who knows me can’t be surprised that this got my attention fast.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is its “lived-in” feel. There are few scenes that look like they were shot on a set and everything you see gives you the sense that it wasn’t just taken out of a box. Even the dialogue and tone between all the characters hints at shared stories that we, the audience, don’t know and a camaraderie that we don’t necessarily have to witness. It’s comforting on a subconscious level and you never feel like you’re watching a film as much as watching the neighborhood kids playing.
I remember, as a kid, loving every minute of the film, the same way I remember loving food from McDonald’s and the watermelon-smashing comedy of Gallagher: I loved it mostly because I couldn’t recognize its flaws.
Last week I was glad to read an optimistic article which said that a remake of the film was in the works. Not being one to shy away from a new project, I’ve taken it upon myself to present an idea for the inevitable rewrite of the film.
Before I begin to bore you, let me tell you the basic story of the original (spoilers ahead):
Ben (played by a very young Ethan Hawke in his first feature film) is a kid obsessed with science fiction movies and outer space (sound familiar?). He has dreams of flying over a gigantic circuit board of some sort and describes some of the components to his nerdy friend Wolfgang (played by a young River Phoenix in his first feature as well).
Wolfgang takes Ben’s drawings and assembles the circuit board which he then plugs into his (1980’s) computer. The boys quickly discover that the board contains a program which can create a bubble in real space. The program asks for the boys to put in coordinates which they do and they discover that the bubble can move with great speed and agility and that it pushes aside anything in its path.
Another friend, Darren, who has protected the pair from bullies, joins them in testing the bubble to see what it can do. On a hilltop outside of town the friends make a bubble large enough to contain Wolfgang, at which point they promptly lose control and Wolfgang gets taken for quite a ride over and then through the hill itself.
After turning the program off Wolfgang reports that the bubble is airtight and while inside it he had no inertia. Interpreting this for the others, he concludes that they can use the bubble to travel as fast as they’d like with no side effects.
At this point, like any teenage boys would, they use the device to spy on a girl Ben likes.
With Darren having access to the local junkyard, the boys find an old Tilt-a-Whirl ride which has seen better days. They use it as a chassis to build a spacecraft to fly inside the bubble. There’s a fun montage of its construction but I’ll save you the trouble and show you the finished ship, which they call Thunder Road.
Clearly it’s not a spectacular marvel of engineering, but that’s kind of the point. It’s built from junk. It’s been made with love and sweat and it’s just the kind of thing that middle-school kids would put together. Nothing about it, or the rest of the movie, has a polished feel.
The initial flight of the Thunder Road causes a fair amount of UFO sightings in the town and ends with the destruction of a perfectly good concession stand at the local drive-through (I really miss old movies).
While in the air, the computer controlling the craft goes haywire and begins to take the boys straight up. Only by rebooting and tricking the program do they regain control and return safely to the ditch where their flight began.
After a debate as to whether to go again, the boys return for another flight. This time they trust the dreams that they have had which encourage them let the aliens take control of the ship.
Their next flight swiftly takes them out of the atmosphere and far beyond Earth. They pass over the Moon and are being carried out into space by the program which has taken control of their craft.
This concludes the first hour of the movie. At this point the movie begins to take a hard left turn into ridiculousness and it’s easy to see why it failed to make back even half of its low budget at the box office.
Thunder Road is taken in by a much larger alien craft and the boys leave the vessel to explore the ship. Getting separated by the inner workings of the alien vessel (which has a real fun-house feel to it), the boys soon find the two aliens responsible for their journey. As much as it pains me to do so, I’ll show you what one of the aliens looks like:
Somewhere out there Jim Henson is rolling over in his grave.
It turns out that the aliens only know of Earth from the images they have watched on television and so they communicate with old stand-up comedy lines and newsreel footage and clips from old shows that are always slightly out of context. It’s funny, but only for a minute or two. After a long chat with the pair (who happen to be brother and sister) the alien ship is itself swallowed by a much larger alien vessel and we discover that these two aliens are merely adolescents themselves. They have absconded with their dad’s ship to go and play with the Earthlings. No grand message, no wisdom of the universe to impart. Just a couple of kids on a joyride. It’s charming, but it’s also a little disappointing, both to the boys and the audience (or at least me). Even the director remarked in later years that he wanted something a little more powerful for the overall message.
After being forcibly kicked out in their tin-can spaceship, the boys fly back to Earth and crash-land in the water outside of town. They manage to swim to shore with little difficulty, but the Thunder Road is a total loss.
Soon after the boys, along with the girl they were spying on, have another shared vision of a large circuit board and the movie ends on this optimistic and ambiguous note.
Well, by now surely you’ve all begun drumming your fingers at this mess of a tale and are certainly wondering what could be done to save it.
Remakes are always tricky ground. It’s important to honor the original without duplicating it. It’s difficult to please the first audience while appealing to a new one.
I don’t think any fan of the film would disagree with me that the first hour is excellent and really only the last half is in need of rework.
Armed with this, I propose the following:
For starters, keep the first hour as is. It’s fine with the circuit board, the bubble, the junkyard spaceship, all of it works. I say don’t change a thing there. You can change the ship design or paint scheme but I wouldn’t mess with it too much.
Rather than a joyriding pair of space aliens on a weird fun-house ship, let’s give them a proper destination. Mars immediately comes to mind, but maybe something farther out would be more interesting. Maybe a large structure around Saturn or something on Pluto (minor planets need love too).
You need something more important than alien teenagers on a joyride, so I’m thinking that an alien race chooses these kids as ambassadors of some sort. They want to impart knowledge or wisdom or maybe just their own narrative to mankind, but they fear that adults will just react with distrust and violence, so they choose to have our main characters be witnesses to their goodwill. This might involve something like giving them insight into solving a major problem (cancer, global warming, energy, famine). Still, I wouldn’t want to turn this into a political film or one with a message that some would construe as being leftist or even right-wing.
I think it’d be interesting to throw in an element from The Cassandra Project and have adults try to mount a mission to discover whatever the boys find out there. There could be a side plot with a real spaceship being built to fly somewhere and it is rerouted to see if these aliens are real and discover whatever there is to find. This leads to interesting possibilities with first contact stories or something with cosmic significance. There’s a lot of ways to play it.
Let’s boil it down to the main elements after the Thunder Road gets built.
– Ben and the boys fly up to meet the aliens by letting the alien program take over the ship.
– The computer takes the ship to Mars or the far side of the Moon where they find a structure of some sort.
– Once inside the boys exit and make their way through an alien library or museum of some kind. As they go through they find records of technology and civilization more advanced than ours.
– The aliens present themselves in some form which isn’t a ridiculous green rubber suit. Something like an AI on a screen or just a talking voice or at the very least we see something which is identifiable and aesthetically pleasing, but still with an alien biology behind it. The air whales of sci-fi books or the Eosapiens of Alien Planet could be good as a guide here.
– Our heroes are told that these beings seek out other life in the universe. They want to interact with us to preserve their knowledge and understand ours. Perhaps they suffer from an ailment that is dooming their species and they need something unique in our biology as a cure.
– The boys, naturally hesitant at first, and perhaps arguing among themselves, agree to take the message of these aliens back, but they demand some evidence so that they will be believed.
– The aliens return them in the Thunder Road along with plans for a new engine that will allow for fast travel in the solar system.
– As all this is happening, NASA is hard at work building the Darwin spacecraft in Earth orbit. The commander of the mission is one of the all-American hero type astronauts and he’s idealistic about space exploration, just like Ben is.
– The boys fly the Thunder Road back to Earth and land at the NASA center in Houston or Huntsville. They want to pass along plans for the new engine and they have a hard time getting the attention of the scientists until they fly the Thunder Road around the rocket garden and show that they are serious.
– NASA immediately reroutes Darwin, armed with the new engine, to search the alien library and decides to send along a contingent of soldiers to make sure the aliens aren’t hostile.
– When the crew of the Darwin reach the library, they are disarmed by the technology there and find that the boys and the Thunder Road have already arrived ahead of them.
– The boys apologize for leading military types back to the aliens, but say that they tried to encourage the adults not to respond with distrust, but some things are inherent for mankind.
– The aliens, military, and the boys all come together in a moment of understanding that life is rare in the universe and whenever it is found, it should be preserved and celebrated.
Obviously this needs a little work, but I think it’s the starting point for a better story than the original, while preserving a lot of the same elements.
As with all of these posts, this is one I’ll continue thinking about in the future.