The idea of a "10 Worst" list for 1985 has already shaped up as a hopeless process of winnowing. Consider "Explorers." It's the work of Joe Dante, a young director with a string of wonderful horror movies ("Gremlins," "The Howling") in his re'sume'. It has special effects by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. It cost Paramount $26 million. And it's the cinematic equivalent of the thumbscrew.
Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams of electric circuits, so he sketches them on a bedside pad and shows them to his junior high buddy, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), a computer whiz. Both kids are persecuted by bullies, but one day classmate Darren (Jason Presson), a troubled child from a broken home, comes to the rescue, rounding out the threesome.
Wolfgang puts the circuit together, plugs it into his PC, and voila! a blue bubble appears, bopping around the basement. The bubble eliminates inertia; if you get inside it, you can race up to any speed and not feel a thing. The kids slap together a ramshackle spacecraft, put it in the bubble and, this being "Explorers," go off to "explore" the secrets of the universe.
The kids are uniformly godawful, particularly the lamentably named Phoenix; their wooden line readings play in long, flat scenes that look like some 12-year-olds' school project. And talking about the movie's sense of pace is like talking about Pikes Peak's sense of pace. "Explorers" is a veritable jungle of thematic and story threads that are never picked up.
The special effects can be whizzy, but the miniature work looks fake, and the creatures look like Disneyland rejects. But what's so bludgeoningly dull about "Explorers" is the way it's so completely trapped in other movies and TV shows. The kids ape Darth Vader and Captain Kirk, and when they finally meet some aliens, there's an agonizingly long segment where the creature, who's been watching Earthling television, mimics Ricky Ricardo, Bugs Bunny, Mr. Ed and assorted game-show hosts and discount-appliance flacks -- the kind of thing "Splash" did gracefully in a couple of scenes.
These impersonations aren't woven into the story, because there isn't any story, either, just some palavering about being kind to aliens, because to them, you're an alien. Tell it to Alan Simpson. Explorers, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG.