(director: Joe Dante; screenwriter: Eric Luke; cinematographer: John Hora; editor: Tina Hirsch; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Ethan Hawke (Ben Crandall), River Phoenix (Wolfgang Mueller), Jason Presson (Darren Woods), Dick Miller (Charlie Drake), Amanda Peterson (Lori Swenson), Robert Picardo (Wak/Father Alien/Starkiller), Leslie Reckert (Neek), Bobby Fite (Steve Jackson, bully), James Cromwell (Wolfgang’s dad), Dana Ivey (Wolfgang’s mom), Brooke Bundy (Science Teacher), Eric Luke (Darren’s teacher); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Edward S. Feldman/David Bombyk; Paramount; 1985)

The offbeat teen comedy gets off to a good start, but when it takes off in space the spoof becomes too alien to be anything more nourishing than junk food for the soul.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joe Dante (“Gremlins“/”Piranha“/”The Howling”)directs this good-natured teen comedy thriller sci-fi film with his usual verve for unusual images. It’s cleverly written by Eric Luke, with many references to America’s pop culture. The offbeat teen comedy gets off to a good start, but when it takes off in space the spoof becomes too alien to be anything more nourishing than junk food for the soul.Dante, unhappy with the finished work, changed it after its box office misfire at its theater release, by rearranging for cable certain scenes to draw out more comedy and drama (which seemed to help its popularity grow).

Three suburban noncomformist junior high school students–hassled in school and at home–geek science whiz, Wolfgang Mueller (River Phoenix), the straight-arrow visionary dreamer obsessed with late night TV sci-fi shows, Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke), and an outsider wise guy protector of the geeks from a poor family, Darren Woods (Jason Presson), team up to take a space journey on a homemade spaceship created from a computer by Wolfgang, that’s based on a dream of Ben’s. Wolfgang manufactures a giant blue soap bubble from the symbols of Ben’s dream and proves that he can make the bubble travel from his computer since it’s not affected by inertia (it goes through solid matter). The dilapidated Tilt-a-Whirl is converted into a spaceship and was obtained for free in a junkyard, thanks to Darren.The adventurous trio reach in their spaceship another galaxy after chased by the military, thinking of their ship as a UFO, and make contact with a lovable alien family. There the youths are disillusioned to find the extraterrestrial patriarch’s (Robert Picardo)knowledge of earth is confined to his watching such popular earlier TV shows from the 1950s & 1960s as I Love Lucy and the Ed Sullivan and they are given no new knowledge of the universe, only promises they will learn more if they come again.

The deadpan dialogue and its inventive sci-fi lessons, keep it wacky as a kiddie pic (though it defies PC sensibility by having the thirteen year old drinking beer and the hero using the space bubble to be a peeping tom, as his dream girl classmate (Amanda Peterson) he has a crush on sleeps in her bedroom). Adults might find it silly or might be turned off by its weak and unconvincing optimistic cautious ending, but might tune into Dante’s in-jokes, his playful cynical take on 1950’s sci-fi films (films he loves) and belief that the ‘great beyond’ is merely a wasteland littered with American pop culture (no Spielbergian wonders at space, which upset the studio suits who didn’t let Dante complete his visions for the film before releasing it).The special effects from Industrial Light & Magic give it a George Lucas like “Star Wars” flavor (Lucas also used the same company for his special effects).