WHILE I like extraterrestrials as well as the next guy, haven't we had about enough of these benign rubber people?

"Explorers," the latest first-encounter movie, is cute, charming and as adorable as any of the genre. But what is this, an invasion? Pods, vampires, time travelers -- and even "E.T." is coming back next weekend.

Oh, well, never mind. Here's the deal. Three delightful, inventive junior high school boys build a spaceship in the backyard. It's an orbital capsule made of an abandoned Tilt- A-Whirl chair and a home computer. Naturally, it's provisioned with Tang.

Lucasfilm Light and Magic effects along with the computer graphics people get top billing over the unknown child stars, pleasant little performers. Ethan Hawke debuts as a sci-fi fan; River Phoenix plays a computer nerd; and Jason Presson is a mechanical wizard from the wrong side of the tracks.

Ethan dreams up a power source (I still don't know what it is) and the three are soon off to the stars where they meet some technologically advanced latex beings. Wak, delightfully performed by Robert Picardo, does outer space shtick. And he and his little green sister -- with eyes on stalks and little suckers on their fingers -- are avid earth TV fans. "I watched four episodes of 'Lassie' before I figured out why the little hairy kid couldn't talk," says Wak as the intergalacticals attempt mutual understanding.

Director Joe Dante is quick to note that these little critters are nothing like his infamous "Gremlins." In fact, there is nothing that would frighten anyone in this amusing, if pat, little movie. The witty but meandering screenplay shows future promise for first-time writer Eric Luke, a guy who used to work in a sci-fi book store.

"Explorers," though it follows the formula, at least hints at a change in all this space business, when the kids find out that aliens don't have all the answers. The effects are ho-hum and the scenes repetitious -- there's really only about an hour's worth of movie here. But the performers are sweet and their little characters positive. They attend school mostly, even though they stay up all night, and they aren't prone to cussing a blue streak.

Well, got to go now. I'm expecting a ship to land in the yard at any moment. The door will open and a sweet creature carrying a script will emerge and ask, "Which way to Spielberg?"

EXPLORERS (PG) -- At area theaters.