Ethan Hawke’s First Movie Was A Sci-Fi Bomb That Had The Worst Movie Luck Ever

By Rick Gonzales | Published

Ethan Hawke Gattaca

Talk about bad luck. When Ethan Hawke first burst onto the movie scene, it was more of a whimper than anything else. Not that it was his fault, he was only 14 when he answered his first casting call. But what looked like a sure thing was beset with issues from the start and the film that could have had promise quickly fizzled at the box office. Let’s take a look at Ethan Hawke’s bad luck first film, the sci-fi bomb called Explorers.

Ethan Hawke’s First Film Was Explorers

While Ethan Hawke was still in high school, his desire was to become a writer. He developed a taste for acting and decided to pursue that instead. Hawke would eventually find his way back to writing as he has penned a number of successful screenplays.

Hawke’s interest in acting led him to his first casting call for a science fiction fantasy film called Explorers that was to be directed by Joe Dante, the man who was in the director’s chair for hit films such as Grand Theft Auto, Piranha, The Howling, and Gremlins.

After Explorers, Dante would also helm The ‘Burbs, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Small Soldiers, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. So, Ethan Hawke’s first film was in good hands, right? Well, yes and no. Let us explain.

Explorers Was A Sci-Fi Movie About Kids Going To Space

ethan hawke river phoenix

Explorers tells the story of Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke), a young Maryland teenager with big dreams, literally. Ben has vivid dreams of flying through the clouds, overlooking a city that looks remarkably like a circuit board.

When he wakes up from these dreams, he finds himself drawing the circuit board. Ben takes his drawings to his best friend Wolfgang Muller (River Phoenix), a child prodigy. These drawings prompt Wolfgang to build a microchip-based that causes a protective bubble around objects.

In Explorers, Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix build a spacecraft to explore the cosmos

The boys then build a spacecraft and use this protective bubble so they can explore space. They do, bringing with them Ben’s “love” interest Lori Swenson (the late Amanda Peterson) and friend Darren Woods (Jason Presson).

The group gets more than they bargained for when they come across a pair of aliens who somehow know a lot about Earth’s culture. When the group is taken aboard a much larger spaceship, their troubles are just beginning.

By description, Explorers sounds like a fun movie that would have been popular when it was released in 1985. It had an engaging cast, and a fun premise, and was in the very capable hands of director Joe Dante. But it was behind the scenes where the film went off the rails and it had nothing to do with cast or crew.

Explorers Had A Run Of Very Bad Luck

ethan hawke river phoenix

Explorers were both the first feature film for Ethan Hawke and the late River Phoenix. It is unfortunate that the film was not well-received. The first problem, according to Joe Dante, was that right in the middle of the movie shoot, the studio (in this case Paramount Pictures) changed hands.

Because of this, “they decided they needed the movie much quicker than we thought,” claimed Dante. The film was then shot in a hurried and haphazard way. Dante said that the paint on the sets was not even dry when they would shoot a scene. When Ethan Hawke and crew stepped into their spacecraft, they sunk into the floor because the cement had yet to harden.

Danta also pointed out that the script contained pop references that they thought were funny or engaging, but audiences did not. For instance, in one scene when the boys first take flight and are seen hovering over the drive-in, the film playing on the screen features a hero named Starkiller.

For you Star Wars fans out there, you might recall that Starkiller was the last name that creator George Lucas wanted to use for Luke before it was changed to Skywalker. There were plenty of other pop references that just didn’t land as well.

Explorers switched studios and also released in the same timeline as Back to the Future

But the true bad luck of the film came with its release date. For some reason paramount wanted the film moved up, so the rushed edit hit the big screen on July 12, 1985. The film was immediately overshadowed by the Live Aid concert, which came one day after Ethan Hawke’s Explorers opened. The film also was in direct competition with Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, which premiered nine days prior to Explorers.

Ethan Hawke’s Explorers was given a budget by Paramount of $20-25 million. After all was said and done, the film only brought in $9.9 million at the box office. The film deserved much better than what Paramount did for it. Since its release, the film has developed a cult following.