★★ / ★★★★
Constantly wondering of the kind of places and lifeforms outside of Earth, Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams about a circuit board one night and draws it out the moment he wakes up. On the way to school, he shows the image to his best friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who reckons himself as a scientist. Soon enough Wolfgang is able to built it and discovers that the chip creates a force field capable of traveling long distances at high speed.
“Explorers,” written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante, generates a sense of wonder during the first half but offers a disappointing final thirty minutes when the junior high students actually meet the long-awaited extraterrestrials. It works best when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren (Jason Presson) are interacting—trying to figure out what to do with their discovery—because the characters have different and colorful personalities that children and pre-teens can relate with.
Ben is the dreamer, Wolfgang is the pragmatist, and Darren lives in the moment. Sometimes these personalities clash but not in a way that it creates big drama and impedes the story’s forward momentum. The clash is often dealt with humor and so we get a chance to appreciate their friendship despite their disagreements. The script is written in such a way that we believe there is a good reason why the boys are friends.
There is a misplaced romantic subplot between Ben and a girl classmate. I found it to be forced, silly, and cheesy. Although I believed that the dreamer is at an age when he is beginning to notice the allure of the opposite sex, not once is the girl given anything interesting to do or say. As a result, she comes across more than an object than an actual person with real thoughts or ideology. It is most amusing when Wolfgang rolls his eyes every time his friend goes girl-crazy.
The special and visual effects are dated based on today’s standards but they retain a level of charm nonetheless. One can argue that such a quality works for the film as it ages because the story is more about imagination than showcasing the most crisp, first-rate images. When I was a kid, I did not care whether a movie or television show looked old; what mattered was the energy, the story, whether the characters encountered a lot of surprising dangers and last-minute saves.
The aliens ought to have been more interesting. Although there is irony in the eventual crossing of paths between extraterrestrials and human children, the tone is far too comedic. Gone is the sense of wonder and curiosity established in the former half. The personalities of the trio feel diluted instead of more concentrated. They are overshadowed by the creatures instead of them getting a chance to ask questions and to explain how humans are like divorced from what the aliens expect.
Still, the picture is imaginative enough to be worthy of seeing at least once. Children, especially boys, who are interested in spaceships and aliens are likely to enjoy the little adventure that the main characters go through.
★ / ★★★★
Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a professional explorer, and his crew (Dan Wylie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Creamer Cain) were in the uncharted Esa’ala Cave to map out the underground river that ran through it. But their exploration turned grim when it began to rain. The cave was located underground so water from the rainforest began to pool inside. With exits blocked by heavy rocks and powerful torrents, Frank, his crew, his son named Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the project financier (Ioan Gruffudd), and his girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) decided that their only hope was to find the exit the led up to the ocean. Inspired by a true story, “Sanctum” might have been better off as a documentary. Instead, it featured melodrama between father and son. Josh felt distant toward his father because Frank was fully invested in his work and didn’t spend enough time at home. When they shared conversations, the topic consisted of cave diving, mountain climbing, and other extreme physical activities. I suppose Josh wanted his father to ask him about his hobbies or if he ever had a girlfriend (or boyfriend). I found it difficult to connect to their relationship when everyone was yelling all the time. Naturally, as the picture progressed, the two found common ground. As for the survival aspect of the film, I liked that the environment looked threatening. Sharp rocks were abound, the flowing water looked like it could easily knock me over, and the claustrophic space when the characters went underwater looked menacing. However, did the characters have to make one bad decision after another? They were supposed to have had experience in extreme situations one way or another, but their mistakes were elementary. Take the financier’s girlfriend for example. Prior to a crucial dive, she was adamant in not wearing a dead woman’s wet suit. She claimed she would rather, in her own words, “be cold and alive than warm and dead.” Her logic did not make sense to me. Someone should have knocked some sense into her and explained that a wet suit could help keep her alive. I just had to laugh at her in the next scene when she got hypothermia. I thought she deserved it for being so stubborn. The picture needed more quiet moments. The score was distracting especially during the underwater sequences. If most of those scenes were silent and all we could here were the bubbles, there would have been genuine, naturalistic tension because we all know how it’s like to hold our breath underwater and the panic that creeps in when our lungs crave oxygen. The filmmakers should have taken advantage of that instead of allowing the music to tell us what to feel. Directed by Alister Grierson, “Sanctum” failed to show us what needed to be experienced. This was best reflected in the scene when Frank and his crew witnessed something that was supposedly astonishing. The camera focused on their expressions the entire time and never allowed us to see the greatness for ourselves.
The New World (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.