A trio of young outcasts learns the (literal) universality of their condition in Explorers. It begins with the science-fiction fantasies of kids and slowly but surely goes off the rails into realm of social satire. “We don’t kill people,” dreamer-turned-intergalactic explorer Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) implores a slimy, green friendly alien. “Well, we do, but not aliens, ‘cause we haven’t met any.”

Ben’s a normal, geeky kid with a collection of comic books and sci-fi novels, a crush on the girl next door (Amanda Peterson), and a problem with the school bullies, who don’t like when he uses big words they don’t understand. He’s saved from one such encounter by Darren (Jason Presson), the local bad boy with a motorbike and a dysfunctional (and possibly abusive) home life.

Ben has a dream of flying over a circuit board (some early CG work from Industrial Light and Magic) and enlists the help of his inventor best friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who keeps a lab in his basement, to assemble it in reality. In practice, the device creates an airtight, solid sphere, perfect — they discover after accidentally trapping Wolfgang in it — for traveling at fast speeds. Taking parts, including an old Tilt-A-Whirl car, from a local junkyard where Darren will occasionally hide when things get bad at home, they build a craft more suited for a trek to the stars, where the program itself seems to want to go.

Eric Luke’s screenplay might have some out-of-place subplots (a pair of officers in the local Sheriff’s department (Dick Miller and Meshach Taylor) who catch the boys flying, and afterward one finds their vehicle, confronts Ben, and then disappears entirely) and underdeveloped character strands (Ben’s crush and family life, Wolfgang’s family life with a set of odd parents (Dana Ivey and James Cromwell), and Darren’s family life, and yes, that’s a pattern).

What keeps the first two acts running is Luke and director Joe Dante’s sense of honest nostalgia, realizing the times of childhood weren’t the best but not even the sky is a limit at a certain age. The film is drenched in the influence sci-fi standards, not only by including clips from genre pieces of the 1950s and a mock, campy flick reminiscent of the era at a drive-in (the ships look so fake, a patron complains, before the boys’ own craft buzzes his car), but also in the cultural influence on the boys.

The script heads in one direction (the introduction of the Sheriff really makes no sense in hindsight) until finally appearing to give up. Once in space, the boys encounter an alien craft and explore the labyrinth within, a dark, echoic, sparse, and fog-drenched design of blandness. Enter then the film’s saving grace, a couple of TV-obsessed aliens (Robert Picardo and Leslie Rickert), brought to life by Rob Bottin’s detailed makeup effects.

The final act of Explorers makes little to no sense, and yet it’s the most satisfying thing about the film. Amidst the crazy vocal and visual montage of TV and movie clips, the boys want to know the secrets of the universe, only to discover the aliens are as perplexed as they are, especially by the popularity of the “hairy kid” on Lassie.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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