In the new indie darling "The Kings of Summer," three eccentric youths from broken (or at least mentally fractured) homes run away to the woods where they've made their own little fortress of solitude. Though their house built out of scrap metal may have everything except indoor plumbing, they are not the first cinematic kids to mount ambitious construction plans.
Indeed, we dug up five movies where youngsters gather their resources and ingenuity to make… well, you'll see. The clichéd "Field of Dreams" slogan "if you build it they will come" doesn't quite apply to any of these films, since all of them tanked at the box office, but they've found their cult niche in the decades since, inspiring generations of tweens to steal their dad's toolbox from the garage and get crackin'.
"Explorers" (1985)- Spaceship
Only in the '80s could a bunch of middle schoolers build a functional space craft powered by a 128k Apple IIc computer and a car battery. Imagine what they could do nowadays with an iPhone and a few cans of Four Loko? The cosmonaut trio is made up of the token nerd Wolfgang (River Phoenix, cast against type), the mechanically inclined Darren (Jason Presson) and he of the excellent "Before Midnight," Ethan Hawke, who made his movie debut. Hawke plays Ben, who gets "TRON"-esque spaceship diagrams/algorithms beamed into his brain by extraterrestrials. Director Joe Dante, a Spielberg protégé, was clearly influenced by the suburban fantasy of "E.T.," though "Explorers" has aged better since it's powered less by schmaltz but by satire, whimsy and a genre lover's affection for imagination over reason.
"The Manhattan Project" (1986) - Atomic Bomb
Marshall Brickman has the distinction of having co-written three of Woody Allen's best pictures ("Sleeper," "Annie Hall," "Manhattan") but struck out as a director. That's unfortunate, since he showed an amazing facility with his third (and final) theatrical film "The Manhattan Project," which has one of the greatest high-concept pitches you've ever heard: A high school kid builds an atomic bomb for a science fair. Yep. Christpher Collet plays Paul, a science whiz kid living in Ithaca near a secret government plutonium lab, and when the head scientist on the project (John Lithgow) starts dating Paul's mom that's the kid's in to steal some bomb batter. Although it exists in the shadow of "WarGames," it's a startling thriller with sharp comedic dialogue, as when Lithgow informs Collet not to mess with government agents who will "lock you in a room and throw away the room."
"The Dog Who Stopped the War" (1984) - Snow Fortress
If you had the Disney Channel back in the '80s you might recall being oddly compelled by this dubbed French-Canadian production (original title "La Guerre Des Tuques") with a pacifist message. It's about two armies of rowdy Quebec kids who stage a full-on snowball war, ostensibly over a cute ten-year-old girl. One side, led by Marc, constructs a MASSIVE snow fortress which they then have to defend against legions of little rascals. It had a periscope, secret escape tunnels, the whole nine yards. The way Marc's dog Cleo (the title St. Bernard) stops the war is *SPOILER* he dies *END SPOILER*, leading to a peace settlement. One particular line from the film, "La guerre, la guerre, c'est pas une raison pour se faire mal!" (translation: War, war, it's not a reason to hurt each other!) became a Quebec rallying cry against the Iraq War in 2003.
"Rushmore" (1999) - Aquarium
Precocious high schooler Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) is at that age when he feels like the only way in the world he can impress his thirty-something teacher crush Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) is to build her an $8-million-dollar aquarium as a tribute to her dead husband. Makes sense. Luckily he has a steel magnate pal in the form of Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who helps finance the venture… until Blume himself falls for Cross. After a bout of warfare between the two, Max helps Blume complete construction of the aquarium (designed specifically not to disrupt the Rushmore Academy baseball diamond), but it takes more than that to win a woman's heart.
"October Sky" (1999) – Rocket
Unlike any of these other kids, Homer Hickam was a real dude who, inspired by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, gathered his buddies together to start building and launching rockets of their own. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Homer is duty-bound to take up digging in a coal mine with his pop (Chris Cooper), but his dreams keep tugging him in the opposite direction… up. His science fair project eventually earns him awards, publicity and a pat on the back from Wernher von Braun. In the final scene he launches a rocket to an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m) — higher than the summit of Mount Everest, and eventually gets a gig working with the big boys at NASA.