Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) keeps having a dream about traveling over a circuit board. He then draws it and shows it to his brainy friend Wolfgang
, who builds the board which is able to create a force field bubble. The two boys, along with help from their new tough friend Darren, decide to build a spaceship out of old amusement park ride parts that when used with their new found technology gives them the ability to travel into space.
They create a spaceship and call it the "Thunderroad", and they fly into space. Not long afterwards, they explore an alien spacecraft that they get sucked into.
The movie contains examples of the following tropes:
- Acting for Two: Well, five. The film is basically one huge showcase for Robert Picardo's comedic talentsnote .
- Aliens Speaking English: Justified, they mostly speak in pop-culture references.
- Aliens Steal Cable: And quote it relentlessly.
- Ascended Fanboy: All three boys count.
- Bizarre Alien Biology: And how.
- Bold Explorer: All three protagonists fit the bill, as they boldly set off to hunt for aliens in their new ship.
- Cool Space Ship: The Thunderroad, sorta.
- Conspicuous CG: The dream sequences.
- Crazy Cultural Comparison: The aliens can only talk human using television quotes.
- The Eighties
- I Come in Peace: One of the kids greets an alien with this, because it seems like the right thing to say. The alien, in turn, replies, "Ehhh, what's up, doc?"
- Interspecies Romance: Neek and Wolfgang seem to have some cross-species Puppy Love going.
- Jerk Ass: The father alien.
- Large Ham: The father alien.
- The Mothership
- Mythology Gag: There's one to Kingston Falls, the setting of Joe Dante's previous film Gremlins.
- Power Perversion Potential: The first thing Ben uses the force field they made to is spy on a girl he loves.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ben's reponse to The father alien's refusal to let the kids stay. And for being an all around jerk.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: An in-universe example. The Thunder Road, actually flying around, passes in front of a drive-in screen showing a cheesy sci-fi movie, prompting a moviegoer to snark "That looks so fake!"
- Re Cut: Joe Dante hated the theatrical cut and was allowed to re-edit the movie for home video release by deleting a few sequences (one of which explains why River Phoenix's character skipped school to work in his lab) while restoring a few small snippets (the video version is three minutes shorter than the theatrical cut as a result). Some of the deleted sequences appear as extras on the DVD.
- Shout-Out: The film was directed by Joe Dante, so it's expected. Examples that haven't already been mentioned include:
- Show Within a Show: See the "Stylistic Suck" entry.
- Speaks in Shout-Outs: The aliens, courtesy of English From Watching Television.
- Stylistic Suck: The Movie at the drive-in is pretty much this.
- The Genie Knows Jack Nicholson: As a side effect of learning all earth languages and culture from television, Wak's dialog consists mainly of celebrity impersonations and pop culture jokes. Neek is a little more subtle, but also does clear impersonations of Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman.
- The Unintelligible: The father alien. You can barely make out a few lines though.