Some lingering business after the Joe Dante festival at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles, I rewatched a couple more of his movies for the first time in a long time.
Explorers was Dante's follow-up to the wildly successful Gremlins, a story about three boys (including a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix) who build their own spaceship out of plans transmitted to them in their dreams and travel to an outer-space alien encounter. The pitch had to have been simple, a scaled-down kids' version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even though it looks like the perfect mid-'80s Amblin production, it surprisingly didn't involve Steven Spielberg at all, which makes me wonder if he passed on it after reading the screenplay and getting to the third-act twist where (SPOILERS!) the boys discover that the aliens aren't the same kind of Spielbergian transcendental figures of awe but merely a couple of teenagers themselves who've stolen the family spaceship for some joyriding around our planet, and who speak mainly in pop culture gibberish they've picked up from TV and radio transmissions.
My fuzzy memories of seeing this when I was 8 are of being totally jazzed at the movie's hour-long setup, hinting at a wondrous close encounter with beings unknown to us, yet possessed of superior technology and apparently mystical abilities, and then being confused and let down when it turns out that not only are the aliens banal, but they're actually kind of annoying. It's a perverse choice for Dante to make, to take some of the hot air out of the transcendental streak of pop sci-fi, and I'm sure it hurt the movie at the box office, just as his snarky sense of humor and unwillingness to give a mass audience quite what it wanted ended up throwing viewers out of Gremlins 2 or Small Soldiers. But the movie still ends on a transcendental, mystical note, meaning that ultimately Dante's experiment was to reframe the genre, to make a film less about escapism (each of the three boys is trying to get away from divorcing parents, poverty, etc.) and more complex. The results are mixed because, sadly, the aliens really are pretty irritating, but the film as a whole stands up regardless, especially thanks to Jerry Goldsmith's score.
Innerspace turned out to be a surprise flop for Dante, which is really a shame because it has just about everything you could want in a 1980s adventure-comedy: an engaging odd-couple pairing with the alcoholic, womanizing test-pilot Dennis Quaid injected into nebbishy Martin Short after a miniaturiation experiment is sabotaged by corporate bad guys; a great supporting cast including Kevin McCarthy and Robert Picardo; fun action scenes; terrific non-digital special effects of Quaid's capsule floating around inside Short's body; and Dante's standard wry sense of humor (my favorite bit: Kenneth Tobey sees Martin Short in a men's room, seemingly talking to noone, and says to him "Play with it buddy, don't talk to it"). The screenplay is a little ungainly, especially in its first half-hour, which I ascribe to a desire to cram the movie as full as possible with extra subplots and bits of business. But any movie that has a bad guy dissolved by the protagonist's stomach acid puts a smile on my face, especially when Dante punctuates this mini-cannibalism with a burp punchline.