Friday, August 23, 2013

To Boldly Go

 River Phoenix would have been 43 today, and he remains one of those great tragedies of Hollywood. Impressing audiences and critics in role after role, he died of drug-induced heart failure at the devastatingly young age of 23, early in the morning on Halloween of 1993.
His many acclaimed roles on television and film had also earned him teen heartthrob status – something he utilized to spread awareness about environmental conservation and animal rights.
Remembered primarily for his James Dean-esque bad boy roles, Phoenix’s first feature film role was as the nerdy but brilliant Wolfgang Müller in the Joe Dante science fiction adventure Explorers (1985).
Supposedly, the script had bounced around Hollywood for many years before Paramount decided to make the film. Rumor has it that Spielberg had passed on it some years earlier, but liked one aspect of the original script in which kids flew through the air on bicycles – something that he would use in E.T. later. Of course, that’s just a rumor.
Wolfgang Petersen was approached by Paramount based upon the success of The Neverending Story, but they were unwilling to meet his request of filming the movie in his native Germany.
Ultimately, the script landed in the hands of Joe Dante, who loved the first two acts, but felt that the third needed a major re-write, something that he and writer Eric Luke would do on the fly. The movie rolled into production with Phoenix, Ethan Hawke (in his first on-screen role), and Jason Presson (fresh off his acclaimed role in The Stone Boy) as three outcasts who, with the help of mysterious alien messages, build their own spacecraft to discover the secrets of the universe.
I’m with Dante: the first two acts are very compelling as these three boys try to understand the source of one of their (and eventually all of their) strange and vivid dreams. Then, utilizing their individual talents, they construct a makeshift spacecraft. I like to imagine the three characters as younger versions of Kirk, Spock, and Scotty. Hawke’s Ben is the adventurous and romantic dreamer, Phoenix is fastidious and scientific as Wolfgang, and Presson’s Darren is the wisecracking mechanic.
How the third act would have resolved itself in the revised version of the script we may never know, because – before they could finish it – Paramount decided to push the release date forward, forcing Dante to release a film that basically falls to pieces in the third act.
Dante does manage to find some coherence in the film, even if that means that it feels like two different movies from beginning to end. The special effects are fun, the young actors are very good, and, of course, you are pretty much guaranteed of three things because it’s a Dante film: lots and lots of intentional nods to other sci-fi films, a quirky sense of humor, and an appearance by legendary character actor Dick Miller, a carry-over from Dante’s stint working on Roger Corman films. Another frequent collaborator of Dante’s is Robert Picardo - later of Star Trek: Voyager fame - who appears in no less than two roles in this movie.
I do so love the first part of this movie that I tend to be pretty forgiving of the disjointed ending (which is still pretty entertaining in its own right). Still, I would be very curious to see the movie that Dante would have made if he’d been allowed to finish it.
It might then have been my favorite River Phoenix movie. That honor instead goes to – no, not Stand By Me, and, no, not Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, either – a little high-tech caper film called Sneakers featuring Phoenix, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, David Straitharn, Mary McDonnell, and Stephen Tobolowsky, released just over a year before Phoenix’s untimely death.
Check out the trailer below:

One piece of trivia: River’s family decided to change their name to Phoenix after moving back to the U.S. from South America for a new start. Before that, the family’s name was Bottom, as in River Bottom.

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