Solarbabies

Solarbabies-rev Solarbabies  (1986)    MGM/Sci-Fi-Action    RT: 94 minutes    Rated PG-13 (some violence, language)    Director: Alan Johnson    Screenplay: Walon Green and Douglas Anthony Metrov    Music: Maurice Jarre    Cinematography: Peter MacDonald    Release date: November 26, 1986 (US)    Cast: Richard Jordan, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, Lukas Haas, James LeGros, Claude Brooks, Peter DeLuise, Pete Kowanko, Adrian Pasdar, Sarah Douglas, Charles Durning, Frank Converse, Terrence Mann, Alexei Sayle, Bruce Payne, Willoughby Gray.    Box Office: $1.6 million (US)

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 A movie as monumentally bad as Solarbabies could only have been made in the coked-out 80s. The minds that came up with this dopey dystopian teen sci-fi actioner must have been under the influence of something. It openly rips off several other futuristic sci-fi pictures like The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, Rollerball and Dune (it even co-stars Richard Jordan as the main villain). There’s also a bit of Cool Hand Luke. Put it all together and you have one of the best bad movies of the Reagan decade.

 SolarbabiesMGM must have been having a banner year in ’86 with two titles originally scheduled for summer bumped to less prestigious fall release dates. First, the Sean Penn-Madonna debacle Shanghai Surprise was moved to September 19 where it predictably did a belly flop at the box office. Then Solarbabies was moved from August (already a bad sign) to Thanksgiving weekend. It sounds like a good move until you consider that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home opened the very same day. It doesn’t take a science officer to correctly guess which one audiences will choose to see over the long weekend. I saw both but I opted to see Star Trek first (opening day, of course!). I waited until Friday to see Solarbabies. The theater was basically empty that afternoon but I knew it would be. MGM barely marketed it; it’s like they knew they had a dud on their hands and saw no reason to waste a lot of money on a heavy marketing campaign for a movie nobody would see anyway. Also, studio execs were still feeling the sting from the failure of Shanghai Surprise.

 Set in the year 41, the world has become a dried-up dirty desert wasteland. A paramilitary outfit called the Eco Protectorate runs the world. They also control the planet’s entire water supply. When kids reach a certain age, they’re sent to government-run “orphanages” to be indoctrinated into the new world order. The “Solarbabies” are a group of roller skating teens who play a rough game that’s a cross between hockey and lacrosse. They are leader Jason (Patric, The Lost Boys), sole female Terra (Gertz, The Lost Boys), brainy Metron (LeGros, Phantasm II), black dude Rabbit (Brooks, Hiding Out), random muscular hunk Tug (DeLuise, 21 Jump Street) and their mascot, a young deaf boy named Daniel (Hass, Witness). At night, they sneak out to play the game against the Scorpions, a rival team led by Gavial (Kowanko, Date with an Angel). One such outing results in punishment for the Solarbabies; they’re forced to dig twenty cubic meters in the hot sun. Well, it beats “surgical alteration”, that’s for sure.

 During their flight from the E-Police and their evil leader Grock (Jordan), Daniel discovers a mysterious glowing orb in a hidden underground cavern. Its name is Bodhi and is of alien origin meaning it has special powers like curing the boy’s deafness and making it rain indoors. Hell, making it rain at all is a special power in and of itself since it hasn’t rained a single drop in decades. The kids agree to keep Bodhi secret but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who know about him. Another teen, a Native American who calls himself Darstar (Pasdar, Streets of Gold), steals it and leaves the orphanage. Daniel finds out and follows him. When the others find Daniel gone, they head off into the desert (on roller skates!) to find him with the E-Police in pursuit. Grock’s main objective is to obtain the orb and take it to mad scientist Shandray (Douglas, Superman II) at the high-security water storage facility to be destroyed before it can restore the planet to its former self. That would be bad for those in charge.

 One might think Solarbabies is a comedy upon seeing Mel Brooks’ name attached. The zany mind behind Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and History of the World Part I did NOT direct it. His production company Brooksfilms financed it (Brooks is credited as executive producer). Although he would go on to make his own sci-fi comedy Spaceballs the following year, Solarbabies has more than its fair share of laughs. That they’re entirely unintentional doesn’t matter. The dialogue is positively atrocious. Grock refers to the Solarbabies as “left brain rollers” while yelling at the Scorpions (future E-Police) and issues this warning to Gavial when he tries to explain why they lost the unauthorized night game against the ragtag team of future world saviors: “Cut your breath before you betray your putrid thinking!” During a period of recreational skating, a recorded voice on the P.A. system urges the teens to “give raw power to the cause of order” and calls them to “synergic dedication”.

 Solarbabies is hilariously bad on so many levels. Not only is it incredibly stupid, it thinks its audience is the same. Here’s an example. In this future hell, water is strictly rationed. The small amount people receive each day is presumably for drinking, that’s a necessity. With water in such short supply, I would guess that the last thing people would do is waste it on things like showering. So why is it the characters aren’t dirtier? Gertz always looks like she just washed her hair, even after she finishes digging the disciplinary ditch. Then there’s the more obvious lapse in logic and that’s the notion of the characters roller skating across the desert. Is it pure luck that they find paved surfaces the whole way? I have other questions. What does Darstar intend to do with Bodhi? Why do the teens use slang and wear hairstyles from the 80s? The list of plot holes and absurdities goes on and on.

 Jordan and Douglas really camp it up as the villains of the piece. Charles Durning (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) sweats a lot as the orphanage warden. Alexei Sayle (The Young Ones) and Bruce Payne (Passenger 57) provide intentional comic relief as a pair of slightly incompetent bounty hunters hired by Grock to capture the young escapees. The younger cast members are an attractive bunch but minimally talented. The special effects are cheesy. The sets are right out of the Mad Max universe, especially a desert city called Tiretown. Can you guess what it’s built from? I kept looking for Tina Turner’s Auntie Entity. The costumes are downright silly. Jordan’s uniform looks like it’s made from rubber floor mats.

 I could probably go on and on about Solarbabies but since I’m not out to write a novel, I’ll get to the point. It’s a great bad movie! It’s a good thing there weren’t many people in the theater when I saw it; I expect my laughter would have been bothersome. With my luck, it wouldn’t have been at all surprising if I attended the same showing as the only person in the world taking any of this crap seriously. I honestly can’t believe Brooks spent $25 million on a movie that could have been made for a tenth of that amount and not been any worse. Its greatness lies in its badness. It’s funny how the bad movies of 30-odd years ago are better than today’s movies. Solarbabies is one of the two movies directed by Alan Johnson- the other is 1983’s To Be or Not to Be- who went back to being a cinematographer after it tanked commercially and critically. He reportedly didn’t get along with the cast; Brooks was forced to come to the set in Spain and order everybody to get back to work. Maybe he should have just taken all the footage shot up to that point and worked it into Spaceballs. It’s not like anybody would know the difference. All kidding aside, Solarbabies is a trash classic that demands at least one viewing by bad movie addicts. 

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