Originally published in 2010 at Forces of Geek
The opening sequence of Alan Johnson’s 1986 film Solarbabies is really pretty good: In the middle of a desert at night, two teams of teenaged warriors in face masks and protective gear square off across an athletic court: the noble Solarbabies versus the treacherous Scorpions. A violent, no-holds-barred game of something called skateball—an unholy blend of lacrosse and field hockey played on roller-skates—ensues. The game is disrupted by the arrival of the E-Police, a brutal force led by the sadistic Strictor Grock (Richard Jordan), head of the excellently-named Maiming Squad. The kids frantically wheel away to safety, with the authorities in hot pursuit. This is a promising start.
Alas, nothing else in Solarbabies can be classified as “really pretty good.”
It’s the Year 41, and the drought-plagued Earth has turned into a barren wasteland. A tyrannical governing body known as the Protectorate controls the water supply. The Solarbabies—Jason (Jason Patric), Terra (Jami Gertz), Metron (James Le Gros), Tug (Peter DeLuise), Rabbit (Claude Brooks), and wee little Daniel (Lukas Haas)—toil at a grim, Protectorate-run orphanage, until Daniel stumbles across the mythical Sphere of Longiness, a sentient glowing blue orb named Bodhi, which, legend has it, is destined to restore water to the planet.
Mysterious fellow orphan Darstar (Adrian Pasdar) jump-starts the plot when he swipes Bodhi from the Solarbabies on a whim and hightails it across the desert. Darstar, who is a member of a mystical race called the Tchigani, wears beads woven into his backswept hairdo, carries around an owl, and, when asked if the owl belongs to him, is given to issuing enigmatic proclamations like, “As much as an owl is anyone’s.” There’s every chance Darstar paints with all the colors of the wind. Daniel heads after Darstar to retrieve Bodhi, so the Solarbabies take off after Daniel, roller-skating their way across the sandy desert, keeping one step ahead of Strictor Grock and the E-Police. This is every bit as ludicrous as it sounds.
All paths converge at a ramshackle outpost called Tire Town. Ostensibly a cesspool of lawless depravity, Tire Town strives for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome levels of grit, but hits much closer to Norman Jewison’s filmed version of Jesus Christ Superstar, only with fewer jazz hands and energetic dance numbers. After Strictor Grock captures Darstar and Bodhi, the Solarbabies seek refuge with Terra’s father (“orphan” having a somewhat different meaning in the Solarbabies universe), who is the leader of a resistance group known as the Eco-Warriors. The Eco-Warriors once waged a fierce and dedicated war against the tyranny of the Protectorate, but are now content to kick back in a lush underground rainforest, complete with their very own glacier (“This is called ice,” Terra solemnly informs the rest of the Solarbabies), while the rest of humanity dies of thirst on the surface.
The Solarbabies mount an attack against the Protectorate to rescue Bodhi (and, as an afterthought, Darstar) from the clutches of evil scientist Shandray (iconic Superman II vixen Sarah Douglas). For her part, Shandray wants to destroy the Bodhi to prevent it from ending the drought. If there’s an overriding theme to Solarbabies, this is it: Science is evil and senselessly destructive. Unlike most post-apocalyptic films of the time, the roots of Solarbabies aren’t based in Cold War angst and fears of nuclear proliferation—the world hasn’t been nuked into oblivion; it just hasn’t had enough rain. The environmental message is fine, but it’s too bad the film takes such a hard stance against scientific progress in favor of muddled, fuzzy, mystical overtones: The magical glowing orb that falls from the sky can save us all, if only the damn scientists would stop trying to sabotage everything.
There’s a climactic battle (on roller-skates, natch) in which Strictor Grock and Shandray meet a gruesome comeuppance, Bodhi brings torrential rainstorms to the parched Earth, and the Solarbabies splash around in a newly-formed ocean for about forty-seven minutes while Smokey Robinson’s “Love Will Set You Free (Theme from Solarbabies)” plays in the background. Credits roll.
It’s an embarrassing film to watch; I imagine starring in it would be a mortifying experience for any terribly serious young actor. Leading-man Patric looks visibly pained through much of it. Patric has done plenty of good work in other projects, and I can understand how he might have had some personal dignity issues with appearing in this nonsense, but by the time you sign a contract agreeing to play a futuristic roller-skating orphan in a film called, ahem, Solarbabies, you’ve waived your right to hold onto your dignity. Patric owed the filmmakers more energy and enthusiasm than he brought to the role.
(To be fair, Pasdar puts in a similarly low-wattage performance, but: a) the responsibility for the film’s success didn’t rest on his manly shoulders, and b) as anyone who watched Pasdar on his four seasons of Heroes knows, that’s kind of what he does, and he does it well. He’s got a quiet and low-key screen presence, but unlike Patric, he never seems like he’s slumming it.)
With his enormous eyes and preternatural cuteness, Haas, still riding high on the wave of his acclaimed performance in Witness, fares the best of the Solarbabies. As Terra, Gertz is game for any preposterous situation the film places her in, but there’s not much substance to her underwritten role. Tug, Rabbit and Metron hover uselessly on the sidelines for the whole movie. Tug’s big moment comes when he randomly stumbles across an ancient six-pack of beer in a cave; Rabbit’s big moment comes when he (sigh) beat-boxes and breakdances with Bodhi. Metron has no big moment, and that’s probably for the best.
And then there’s Pete Kowanko as Gavial, Grock’s obnoxious and venal teenaged protégé, who sports a bleached-blond mullet and a dangling earring, the combination of which would have made him pretty hot stuff in my hometown of Spokane circa 1986. Gavial clashes with Jason, leers at Terra, and injects a much-needed dose of energy into the film; of the main cast, Kowanko is the only one who appears to have availed himself of the free coffee at the craft services table before filming.
The success of any dystopic film hinges upon how well the filmmakers manage to create an internally-consistent and believable society. Lavish production design is not essential; some of the most effective post-apocalyptic films have been made on shoestring budgets, like the original Mad Max or the cult classic A Boy and His Dog. Solarbabies, on the other hand, never quite forms a cohesive whole. The Protectorate and the E-Police—sleek, brutal, tech-savvy, totalitarian—don’t seem to belong in the same movie with the groovy white-robed Eco-Warriors or the faux-mystic Tchigani. Still, if Solarbabies had more verve and driving energy, this wouldn’t matter so much. The film’s just too short (it clocks in at just over ninety minutes, and that’s including a few musical montages) and too shallow, and the end result is noncommittal and toothless.
Solarbabies is at its most watchable when it embraces its campier, quasi-exploitative side. The Solarbabies are kept in line at the orphanage with threats of unspecified “surgical alteration.” They scamper about in tight shorts and oversized sun-faded jerseys worn sexily off the shoulder, Flashdance-style. (While this is a fetching look on nubile young things like Gertz, Patric and Pasdar, it’s a little creepy when worn by prepubescent Haas.) The hookers in Tire Town get paid in oil, poor girls. To destroy Bodhi, Shandray enlists the services of a robot called the Terminack, which, per Shandray, “can squeeze the color from a ruby or pluck the eye from a living bird” and has been “programmed to enjoy what he does.” All of this is preposterous and ridiculous… and yet sort of delightful.
Solarbabies aims to be The Road Warrior for the Tiger Beat set, which by itself is an awesome idea. Shame the finished product features too much garbled mysticism and not much bite.