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Film / Explorers

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A 1985 sci-fi/fantasy film directed by Joe Dante.

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 (River Phoenix), 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 (Jason Presson), 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 "Thunder Road", 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:

  • The Alleged Spaceship: The Thunder Road is made of an old carnival ride, some spot-welding, a 1980s portable computer, Imported Alien Phlebotinum (that the kids didn't know was unreliable until their first flight, and still is pretty complicated to fly) and a whole lot of prayer.
  • 555: The zip code on Ben's jacket is 21499. While the 214XX is indeed Maryland (matching his address), the "21499" zip code itself is not in use in the United States.
  • Aborted Arc: The sheriff investigating the situation with the Thunder Road, which among other things has him saying that he had also gotten the same dreams the kids have when he was young. After the Thunder Road takes off from Earth at the climax (with him seeing it happen), he doesn't appear anymore.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Justified, they mostly speak in pop-culture references.
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  • Aliens Steal Cable: And quote it relentlessly.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: The Thunder Road is swallowed by a large spaceship. Then that one is swallowed by a larger one in the same way.
  • Ascended Fanboy: All three boys count.
  • Author Appeal: Dante's love of The '50s science fiction and casting of Dick Miller.
  • 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.
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: An early scene has Ben calling Jerk Jock Steve Jackson as "having elephantiasis on his ego" (because he bullied Wolfgang) before class. Gilligan Cut to after class and Jackson beating the holy hell out of Ben alongside his buddies because he (somehow) heard that Ben called him that, and not knowing what "elephantiasis" really means, just assumed it to be an insult worth beating someone into a coma over (he's not completely wrong, however the implication is that, Ben being one of the class "nerds", he was just looking for any reason to beat him up. Ben deciding to explain (in the most insulting way possible) what the term means wasn't going to do him any favors).
  • California Doubling: Ben's jacket clearly states that his address is in Maryland, but the movie was filmed in California. The vegetation is a giveaway.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Ben wakes up from a nightmare.
  • Cool Space Ship: The Thunderroad, sorta. Wak and Neek's, too. And their Dad's ship.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: The aliens can only talk human using television quotes.
  • Dream Sequence: Ben has a dream
  • The '80s: The setting.
  • Free-Range Children: All three kids work well into the night at the creek. If their parents were looking for them, we never find out.
    • They also manage to stay out all night and come home the night of the first flight with their clothes and breath smelling like beer from christening the Thunder Road.
  • Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress: The "Gravitational Cognizance" sort - the characters don't fall until they realize they should be falling. This happens when they return to earth the final time.
  • Hard-Work Montage: The scene depicting the construction of the Thunder Road.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The aliens' father thinks that way, and his children agree that earth is too dangerous for aliens to visit since the humans aren't very welcoming of outsiders.
  • 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. Also Jerk Jock Steve Jackson and his gang of goons (and the kid that ripped Wolfgang's pants For the Lulz).
  • Just Plane Wrong: The helicopter's amazing night of flying. The Thunder Road is flying when the Drive In is open - evening, between 9pm and 1am. The helicopter encounters it shortly after the Drive in. We next see the helicopter landing in broad daylight, late enough in the morning the newspapers have been published and are available. That's easy 7 hours of flight that evening - a long time for that kind of helicopter to be just tooling around. That is assuming that they didn't stop for refueling or took another shift the following day to look around.
  • Kids Driving Cars:
    • The plot of the movie is about three boys building then flying a space rocket.
    • The aliens the kids encountered are also children that stole their father's car for a joyride.
  • Large Ham: The father alien.
  • The Mothership
  • Mythology Gag: There's one to Kingston Falls, the setting of Joe Dante's previous film Gremlins.
  • No Endor Holocaust: The Thunder Road crashes through a crowded concession stand. No injuries. The property damage does attract police attention, though.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: The ship sinks and it becomes obvious Wolfgang hasn't saved any of the programming work at all on disk - everything was in the ship. The Sequel Hook scene at the end, however, implies that the kids will get either a new copy of the plans or maybe an upgraded version from his alien friends.
  • 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.
  • Sequel Hook: The kids start dreaming again —all of them together, even Ben's crush— of schematics, with the implication that it's an upgraded version of the force field system that powered the Thunder Road.
  • 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.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Charlie Drake, the cop who investigates the Thunder Road after their disastrous first flight. He and Ben are ultimately Not So Different, and he wishes them well when he sees them launch into space.
  • 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 (voiced by Frank Welker). You can barely make out a few lines though note .
  • Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: Charlie's plot is dropped after the space trip, and has little bearing on the larger plot.


Example of: