Joe Dante – Explorer of the American Dream

Joe Dante in Edinburgh, 2009In our latest lesson for Geek School, feature write Les Anderson has cast his discerning eye over the body of work of director Joe Dante, reminiscing over such fond classics as The Howling, Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, Matinee, Innerspace and his most recent work The Hole, but paying particular attention to his science fiction film released in the summer of 1985, Explorers. Please sit back and pay attention to this appreciation of a neglected gem.

Known mainly as a director of both comedy and horror, often in the same film, Joe Dante’s filmography is not extensive but his genre credentials are impeccable.  He started out as a protégé of Roger Corman for whom he directed the low-budget exploitation feature Piranha, but his first major success was the werewolf horror The Howling which was the first of his films conceived both as a horror story and also as a satire on American media and rampant consumerism, a theme he has returned to several times over the years.

The Howling

The Howling

His first job for Corman was cutting together trailers for low-budget ‘exploitation’ films, one of the subsequent interests in his work is the influence of such ‘trash’ culture on mainstream American society as a whole and how, coupled with corporate greed, it acts as a powerful counterpoint to ‘respectable’ society as portrayed in mainstream Hollywood cinema. His film Matinee can even be viewed as a love-letter to the whole experience of producing, promoting and watching these films. For decades now, he has curated screenings of cult movies in the USA and in 2009 brought his own personal print of Corman’s The Intruder to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, starring William Shatner in one of his earliest film roles.

In 1984, Gremlins became his most commercially successful and best-known film, and since then he has produced a handful of beautifully-crafted but often unjustly neglected genre features including Innerspace in 1987, The ‘Burbs in 1989, the obligatory Gremlins 2: The Next Batch in 1990, Matinee in 1993 and Small Soldiers in 1998, arguably a thematic remake of Gremlins. While he continues to direct occasional feature films, his last release being 2009’s family-friendly horror The Hole in 2010, in an interview at the time of that release he said he directs so few features now because there is almost no studio funding these days for the kind of films he wants to make. Although always active in American television, Dante has now joined the fashionable ranks of feature directors working in prestige series, recently directing an episode of Hawaii Five-O.

The 'Burbs

The ‘Burbs

One of Dante’s recurrent thematic concerns is that of the ‘other-worldly’ darkness that can underlie and even threaten ordinary everyday American life and how there is a nascent desire amongst some suburban Americans to escape the stifling confines of smalltown life and its rigid societal codes and mores. For example, The Howling climaxes with a female news anchor transforming into a werewolf on live television, Gremlins gives smalltown America an invasion of murderous supernatural creatures at Christmas, The ‘Burbs transplants the archetypes of a gothic horror into a ‘respectable’ suburban community and Matinee, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis mixes Cold War paranoia with an affectionate homage to William Castle’s low-budget horror films of the ‘50s. Perhaps Dante’s most explicit exploration of his thematic concerns can be seen in the television series Eerie, Indiana which he co-produced and co-directed in 1991 in which a teenage boy moves to the eponymous small town where very strange things happen every day, even going so far as having a final ‘meta’ episode where the character dreams he is the actor playing him, with Dante appearing onscreen as himself.

Dante’s knowledge of film history is encyclopaedic and his features are peppered with excerpts from and homages to other films. In the background of many of his features televisions are often seen with films playing as a reminder of how embedded these works in American life: in Gremlins we see the similarly Christmas themed It’s A Wonderful Life and in Explorers he foregrounds the science fiction classics The War of the Worlds and This Island Earth. This last film, Explorers, is one of my personal favourites, and it is that I wish to concentrate on. Notwithstanding Dante’s reputation as a horror director, Explorers is a kids’ adventure movie, albeit with his quirky take on American life.

Gremlins

Gremlins

Following the astonishing global success of Spielberg’s E.T. in 1982, a tsunami of family-audience science fiction (and fantasy) films followed throughout the early-to-mid 1980s. Amongst the better-known titles are the Star Trek series, Cocoon, Enemy Mine, The Last Starfighter, Starman, Flight of The Navigator, D.A.R.Y.L., Short Circuit and Back to the Future as well as their assorted sequels and the inevitable low-budget rip-offs, and Explorers was Dante’s 1985 contribution to the genre.

Given the massive success of Gremlins the previous year, grossing around $150 million, Dante became a hot property and was an obvious choice to be offered a big-budget effects-laden film and expectations for Explorers were extremely high. Dante however took a standard Hollywood adventure narrative and overlaid it with his own take on American society and popular culture, and in some respects, the film critiques and subverts the genre as a whole. Unfortunately, studio heads brought forward the release date by three months, forcing Dante to curtail production and deliver an unfinished rough cut with an unsatisfactory and, to many, baffling ending; even now, the dedicated thread on the Internet Movie Data Base discussion forum demonstrates how disappointed some viewers remain.

Explorers

Explorers

Yet even in its unfinished state, the film still has tremendous charm and is enormously engaging, only beginning to unravel in the final half hour at the point of encounter with the aliens, where there is an abrupt tonal shift, the pacing flags and the narrative becomes problematic. This was the part of the film that would have been rew
orked the most had Dante been able to follow the original release schedule but even so, the production elements are beautifully executed and the aliens are realised using sophisticated state-of-the-art full body prosthetics.

Pitching Explorers today, it would be describe as Stand By Me meets Contact, and while both of those films post-date Explorers, their sources (the novella The Body from Stephen King’s Different Seasons and Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) were published in the early ‘80s and their themes may have tapped into some national zeitgeist of the time. Simply speaking, in Explorers a group of adolescent ‘outsider’ American boys embark on a life-changing journey after one of them is sent, in his dreams, instructions by aliens to construct a spacecraft and venture into the unknown.

Meeting the aliens

Meeting the aliens

Importantly, the boys’ subsequent encounter with the aliens does not go according to generic conventions. By Hollywood standards of the time, the boys would be required to have some kind of emotional epiphany when they encounter the awe-inspiring highly-advanced aliens and they would return safely to the bosoms of their dysfunctional families having learned that Love Is The Answer, and if Steven Spielberg had directed this, that might have happened. Instead, Dante takes a rather more skewed approach informed by his own interest in American counter-culture, and out of the three principals, only one could be considered as having a dysfunctional homelife, and he is in fact the most grounded and practical of them.

When the boys arrive on the orbiting ship and finally have their close encounter of the third kind they find the aliens to be just curious kids like themselves who are obsessed with American trash culture of the ‘50s that has been broadcast into the ether and which they’re just receiving, and their view of human society is coloured by the paranoia they witness in these features, and the boys are at pains to point out that things have progressed since then. In another homage to the cinema of the era, the alien kids have also borrowed ‘the car’ without telling Dad so our heroes find themselves having to leave in a hurry when Dad shows up.

The eponymous explorers

The eponymous explorers

One of Dante’s greatest strengths as a director is his skill in casting, and is films invariably feature very strong leads supported by immensely experienced and respected character actors. For Explorers he had the challenge of casting three adolescent boys, and while Hollywood is always awash with precocious fourteen year old actors, he managed to find three very engaging young talents in Jason Presson, River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke. Presson and Phoenix were experienced child actors but this was Ethan Hawke’s first film, and although Presson’s career petered out, both Phoenix and Hawke went on to have very high-profile careers.

Here, their superb onscreen chemistry very quickly draws the viewer into their bickering but close friendship, and if I may be permitted a comparison with the world of Star Trek, it has been noted by several commentators that what made the original triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy so appealing is that they represent three aspects of the personality with Spock the intellect, McCoy the emotional heart and Kirk the pragmatic facilitator, and in Explorers we have a similar setup.

Ben, the lead (Hawke) is a dreamer with an obsession with ‘50s science fiction.Our first introduction to him is in his bedroom with George Pal’s The War of the Worlds playing on the television as he wakes from his dream. He immediately contacts his best friend Wolfgang (Phoenix) using a walkie-talkie, a filmic shorthand to stress their credentials as science geeks and the closeness of their friendship. Wolfgang comes from a large chaotic German family and even has a lab in the basement of the family home, but he also has the knowledge necessary to build the device Ben sees in his dreams. They are joined by Darren (Presson) a taciturn boy from a poor family who Ben first meets when Darren saves him from being bullied. The down-to-earth facilitator of the three, it is he who finds and converts the disused fairground cabin that will become their spaceship, the Thunder Road.

Boarding the Thunder Road

Boarding the Thunder Road

The three boys are well supported by a terrific cast of character talent. Wolfgang’s parents are played by James Cromwell and Dana Ivey, luxury casting by any standards, and as usual, Dick Miller (who appears in all of Dante’s films) and Robert Picardo feature in small but prominent roles. Picardo even gets to go a bit meta when the boys take Thunder Road on its first test flight and end up wreaking havoc at a local drive-in where a trashy cheap space adventure is showing.

Playing the onscreen hero, Starkiller, Picardo appears to stop what he’s doing and watch what is happening offscreen. A typical Dante touch, reminiscent of something found in a wackier 1940s comedy it is also one of the touches that add texture, but is a technique a more straightforward commercial director wouldn’t consider using. Picardo’s best moment, however, has to be his performance as the alien boy Wak, encased in a huge and sophisticated full-body prosthetic by Rob Bottin, best known for his work with John Carpenter on The Thing, the creation must have been excruciatingly uncomfortable, but he still manages to successfully convey a vibrant if cartoonlike character.

Gremlins in the kitchen

Gremlins in the kitchen

It would be fair to say that young women don’t usually fare well in Dante’s films of the 80s. In Explorers the only significant young female character is Ben’s classmate Lori who is little more than an over-coiffed object of longing for Ben throughout the film. There is one voyeuristic scene that sees Ben using the new-found anti-grav device as a means to spy on her at night through her bedroom window. Within the context of the film it’s presented as an almost-charming representation of an adolescent boy’s desires – ‘We have this great device that helps us to fly so we’ll use it to spy on girls’. Older women, however, fare much better: while in Explorers the most significant older woman, Wolfgang’s mother played by Dana Ivey, has little more to do here than play an eccentric harassed mother of a large and chaotic family, Frances Lee McCain’s Lynn Peltzer in Gremlins has a particularly memorable scene where she disposes of no less than three of the creatures in the kitchen by means of various domestic appliances.

Matinee

Matinee

At the time I took this be a critique of a housewife’s perceived role and that her weapons of choice would be the tools she used in daily life – a blender, a carving knife and a microwave oven – and it’s also been suggested that she was defending “her” space, the part of the house traditionally allocated exclusively to suburban housewives. That scene also subverts the classic housewife and mother of most suburban dramas, usually depicted as a nurturing but somewhat helpless homemaker. Here she takes the initiative and instead of running away screaming as most of her screen sisters would do, she tackles the problem herself with considerable resourcefulness and courage. Also deserving of mention is Cathy Moriarty in Matinee, a very individual performer whose character is superbly suited to her dry, eccentric style and she gives a deliciously acerbic performance.

Industrial Light and Magic’s effects work for Explorers were state-of-the-art for the time, including some early use of CGI for the circuitboard dream sequences, but most of the visuals were old fashioned physical models and matte work, holding hold up very well even to 21st century eyes. The anti-gravity bubble that allows the Thunder Road to fly is well-conceived and lit with great attention to detail. My favourite shot has to be the Magritte-esque dream sequence in which Ben, hovering above the clouds sees Lori standing at her bedroom window as it tumbles past him. It holds up astonishingly well and compares very favourably with the most modern CGI, perhaps even surpassing it because of that ineffable organic quality you only get from physical filming.

Circuitboard dreams

Circuitboard dreams

Production designer Robert Boyle had worked on many ‘50s B-movies as an art director and moved into production design for Alfred Hitchcock in the early ‘60s, designing The Birds, Marnie and North by Northwest for him. By the ‘70s his portfolio was eclectic to say the least but he concentrated on ‘genres of spectacle’ such as musicals and westerns, even combining the two in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. For his first foray into science fiction, Boyle brought a fresh non-generic approach: the exterior design of the alien ships have an organic playful feel akin to some of Terry Gilliam’s creations, while the interior continues the organic themes but with a sinister edge that would be apparent later in the ‘80s in Tim Burton’s work, but there is even a stop-motion robot at one point, recalling the earlier work of Ray Harryhausen.

Music is a huge contributing factor to the atmosphere of any film, and Explorers boasts one of Jerry Goldsmith’s better scores of the period, sparingly employing a mixture of traditional orchestral lines for the ‘wow’ moments and then fashionable ‘80s synthesisers for the alien sequences. While not Goldsmith’s most sophisticated score, it does reflect the target family audience, and he creates a suitably awestruck atmosphere at the appropriate points.

Looney Tunes Back in Action

Looney Tunes Back in Action

Explorers is not a fully-rounded classic: as already mentioned, while the first hour is exceptionally engaging, even magical, the pacing and narrative flag substantially in the last half hour and the confusion is compounded as the film exists in at least two slightly different edits. The version available on Region 1 DVD has two short scenes cut (available as deleted scenes on the disk) which were reinstated for the UK release, however the DVD does have a slightly longer finale which includes an explicit homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Viewers should not be dissuaded by these flaws, however, as it remains a charming film suffused with warmth and humanity and after a few viewings, the conclusion does become comprehensible.

In recent years Dante has not been as active as he or his fans would like because, as already mentioned, studios just don’t want to make his kind of films anymore, and since 1998 he has directed only two features. Looney Tunes: Back in Action was released in 2003 and is a madcap mixture of live action and animation featuring Brendan Fraser and an array of Warner Brothers’ best-loved cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Dante has named Chuck Jones as one of his favourite directors and the anarchic style of Jones’ early shorts can clearly be seen in all of Dante’s

Looney Daleks

Looney Daleks

work. Looney Tunes isn’t entirely successful, let down mainly by a script which is a thinly-disguised rip-off of Spy Kids, released in 2001 and which this, was possibly made to cash in on. It also suffers from weaker casting for some of the leads, possibly studio influenced, as this is an area where Dante normally excels, but on the plus side he does get to parade some iconic film monsters of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including two Daleks.

2009 saw a return to form when Dante released the teen horror film The Hole, his first work to be filmed in 3D. Returning to one of his favourite themes, a single-parent family with a troubled past arrive in a small town. The two teenage sons discover a mysterious locked trapdoor in the cellar floor, and together with the girl next door they decide to investigate what is down there. That it is beautifully made is to be expected, but it also has an

The Hole

The Hole

old-fashioned, almost retro feel to it, looking very much like a 1980s film. Feature directors who don’t release many films over the years tend to stick with old tried-and-trusted techniques and their newer films can sometimes look a bit old-fashioned, and a great deal of the mise-en-scène here is reminiscent of Gremlins, however Dante does incorporate modern horror techniques taken from Japanese cinema and his use of 3D is, as would be expected, exemplary.

Upon reflection, in Explorers Dante is perhaps saying that our legacy to the stars is the radio and television that has been broadcast into space over the past century. Why the aliens should choose American culture is perhaps best explained by the sheer quantity of material produced by the USA and its ubiquitous influence, permeating global culture. Perhaps he may be saying that, to an outsider, the achievements of humanity could be reduced to a few catchphrases and popular tunes rather than the towering cultural pinnacles we hold
dear to ourselves. If it is only by the films we have created that alien life will come to know us, Dante would be a good place to start, though what they will make of them is anyone’s guess.

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