Before watching the movie:
I know pretty much nothing about this. I’d never heard of it before it languished in one of my streaming queues for years untouched, looking vaguely interesting, but not all that exciting. Looking closer now, I see it’s a story about a couple of boys who build an intergalactic spaceship in their backyard and have a fantastical coming of age adventure and… how did I not encounter this growing up? A kid-oriented sci-fi movie from square in the middle of the 80s, which produced such sci-fi-ish legends most of the best Star Trek movies, two-thirds of the original Star Wars trilogy, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and such childhood classics as Stand By Me, Labyrinth (I thought I reviewed that one?), The Never-Ending Story, and of course the most-known member of both categories, E.T.? This seems like it could have had the chance to have been my favorite movie at age nine, maybe as a companion to Flight of the Navigator if I’d known about that before my teens.
I think I’ve experienced movies too late before (see most classic slasher movies, which I was too scared of to watch when they wouldn’t have seemed cheesy to me), so I’m hoping that watching this movie as an entire adult won’t diminish the magic it looks like they’re trying to capture here too much.
After watching the movie:
Ben and his friend Wolfgang are both nerds who get bullied at school, but while Ben is more of a sci-fi dreamer, Wolfgang is a very serious child scientist. Ben has a dream that shows him a circuit diagram, which he draws and passes to Wolfgang. Tougher more mainstream kid Darren defends Ben from a bully and Ben takes him to Wolfgang’s home, where Wolfgang has constructed the circuit and tests it with his father’s computer for the first time. Once activated, the circuit writes its own programming and is suddenly asking for an X, Y, Z coordinate, which, when given, produces an energy sphere of force capable of high acceleration. After some refinement, Wolfgang designs a more comprehensive interface for the program and they realize that if they generate a sphere large enough, someone can ride inside and feel no acceleration effects. Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren hatch a plan to build a capsule they can sit inside comfortably with. But once they’re in the air, instructions from outside the sphere start overriding the guidance.
I came into this movie with the expectation that the outer space adventure was the bulk of the story, but the adventure the movie is concerned with is the slow-burn discovery of what they have and how they can use it. We take a very luxurious amount of time to get to know the lives and lifestyles of our three protagonists and then eventually start to probe the capabilities of what this technology can do. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt like it was taking so long if I wasn’t primed to expect what turned out to be the finale, but also apparently the director wasn’t able to complete the edit, which would go a long way to explaining the pacing, as even the most exciting parts drag.
The story that unfolds vaguely reminds me of a chapter book that was read to my class in fourth grade but never finished about a couple of kids stumbling upon a very unusual alien device that dramatically improves the capabilities of anything it gets wired into. I don’t think it’s close enough to be the same story, but there was a novelization of this movie, so maybe?
It’s possible this movie would’ve captured my imagination as a child. Ben is the kind of sci-fi nerd I at least thought of myself as. I wasn’t into the same era of sci-fi movies as him, but I think that’s the effect of adult writers projecting their own youth experience onto modern youth characters again. I’m pretty sure when I was Ben’s age, the only one of the movies he cites that I’d seen was The Day the Earth Stood Still. I might have had dreams of being a Wolfgang, and some kids in my class saw me that way, but at some point earlier than I would’ve liked to admit, a touch of Darren’s realism came in. Darren sees no point in science fiction because “nobody is out there”, which is pretty close to why I lost interest in real-world astronomy studies for a while, though I never dropped sci-fi, I just considered it a more interesting alternative to reality.
I think I’m better equipped now for a slow-paced story, but I would’ve been more inspired as a child. Maybe there isn’t one perfect age to experience this movie. So many movies seem like that age was or would have been the perfect time, but this is a bit of an unfinished mess and I’m not sure if I would’ve been more or less likely to forgive that when I was in grade school and short on attention. This could’ve been the right movie for me, but now it just seems like one that fell short of its own potential.