Thursday, November 1, 2012

Solarbabies (1986)... Noel's Pick for November


In the future, the Earth is a cracked wasteland and all water is now controlled by the Eco-Protectorate, a fascist military corporation who doles the precious resource out as a form of currency so scarce and prized that the people fall in line. There was an attempted revolution some time ago by a group called the Eco Warriors, but they were brutally squashed by the E-Police, disappearing into the deserts and existing as little more than legend.

On the periphery of the wasteland, the E-Police have set up a series of orphanage complexes where captured toddlers are raised amidst pro-E-Police propaganda and never told where they came from. When not digging or running or otherwise training to be a future army of obedient youths, the kids are given roller skates to use during periods of recreation, both in large, night-club style arenas filled with more strobing propaganda, and in the game of Skate-Ball, a heavily-padded lacrosse style sport that's built a pair of rival teams. On one side, there's the Scorpions, led by the bully Gavial (James Van Der Beek dead-ringer Peter Kowanko) and personally trained by Grock (Richard Jordan), Stricter (head) of the E-Police. In an unsanctioned night game, they're quickly creamed by the heroes of the story: the Solar-Babies (there's no hyphen in the film's title, but there is in the graffiti in the Solar-Babies' storage room).

The Babies consist of square-jawed but disillusioned Jason (Jason Patric), fiery Terra (Jami Gertz), big lug Tug (Peter DeLuise), cynical tech geek Metron (James LeGros), token black guy Rabbit (Claude Brooks), and their deaf young mascot Daniel (Lukas Haas). Despite the crush of their environment, these kids have managed to thrive and explore their imaginations and dreams, demonstrated by their vibrantly painted Skate-Ball uniforms, possession of forbidden books, and a harried Warden (Charles Dunning) who looks on them with fondness, even as he caves into Grock's demand to see them punished for toeing over the line.

I first saw this film just a few months ago, within days of having seen Hunger Games. Ten minutes in, I figured the above was the entire film I was seeing - a post-apocalyptic sports movie, a Rollerball for the YA crowd, where a rivalry between two teams represent those who fall in line with the system and those who oppose it in as many little ways they can slip through. I figured the control of water was just the backdrop, that the true struggle was going to be between Jason and Gavial, echoing the deeper struggle between Grock and the Warden.

Boy, was I wrong.

After this night game is broken up, we never see a full game of Skate-Ball ever again. Instead, while escaping a crush of E-Police, the kids split up and young Daniel finds himself in an abandoned mine shaft, where he discovers a glowing, seemingly living orb. Forming a psychic connection with whoever holds him, the orb is revealed to be Bohdai, who restores Daniel's hearing, then surprises the rest of the team with a sudden indoor rainstorm that coats them in more water than they've ever seen in one place. Bohdai bonds with the children and strengthens their friendships as it plays around and demonstrates its powers to manipulate energy. It then gives Jason a vision of the group swimming and laughing in an entire ocean. This stirs in him a certain something... but then Bohdai is suddenly gone.

Darstar (a hilariously stoic Adrian Pasdar) is another teen at the orphanage; a Native American style mystic who speaks in quiet riddles, draws mysterious shapes in the sand, and has an owl as his trusted companion. He sees in Bohdai a way to reconnect with the lost magic of the world and runs off with the orb, but all he finds are nomadic tribes looking to use Bohdai for their own goals, and a rain of death as the E-Police pursue (they kill the dude's owl! not cool!). But the call of Bohdai leads Daniel to pursue as well, which triggers the other kids to also taste the lure of freedom, even if only for a day before they're caught. Thus begins a quest to... well, the film never really has a clear goal beyond Daniel wanting to find Bohdai, the other kids wanting to find Daniel, and then they'll just see where they are from there.

This is my favorite part of the film, that it feels like a true quest, where the goal is found in the act of doing, not in the plan to do so. Every time the narrative seem to settle to the right, it veers to the left, then dips back a bit, then suddenly shoots forward again. It's a tough film to get a handle on the first time around, but viewing it a second time, I caught little throwaway lines early on that reveal how intricately this was all mapped out, that it isn't just chaotic nonsense, but rather kids who don't have a clue what they're doing, stopping at nothing to fight for the freedom to do it.

As the story evolves, we visit a wax museum overseen by an old wiseman so still at first that he blends into the surroundings; then to Tire Town, a lawless frontier city built entirely out of the shells of cars, with a factory at its heart where people do nothing but burn tires all day; then confront a pair of bounty hunters (one of whom is none other than the oft-mocked Bruce Payne) who turn the kids into horses to pull a carriage made from a recliner and a car axle; then hook up with the Eco Warriors in their hidden, water-filled oasis, and learn Terra (I see what you did there with her name!) is revealed to be the order's long-lost princess. And at some point, Bohdai is captured and set upon by the fiendish instruments (including awesomely designed surgical robot Terminak) of Grock's chief scientist, Ursa of Krypton! Shandray (Sarah Douglas).

Despite being free and having found a new home within the oasis, the Solar-Babies feel they've strayed from their destined path and decide to go back for Bohdai. No, they don't do the smart thing of sneaking into the E-Police's water-controlling dam with an entire army of Eco Warriors. Instead, it's just them in the armor of their Skate-Ball padding as they take on laser-armed guards, attack dogs with flashlights tied to their heads, and the aforementioned awesomely designed surgical robot Terminak. They save the day, lead to the surprisingly violent deaths of the bad guys, blow the dam, then watch as Bohdai disappears in a way that reassures he'll always be with them before they shed their clothes and dive into the ocean from Jason's vision.

I find myself entirely charmed by this movie. The costumes have a great late-80s tye-dye Road Warrior scheme, which has a dusty, lived-in quality that gives weight to this being a world that's been trapped its impossible system for a very long time. And by impossible, I don't mean that as a criticism as it's played more for allegory than reality, with this being a fairy tale quest of children and a nature pixie undoing an imbalance that's altered all life on Earth. The world-building is unique, first exploring the harsh control of the orphanage, then setting out into a desert that isn't as deserted as it first appears, filled with nomads of all sizes and shapes and greedy persuasions. There's an energy and a whimsy to the unfolding of each chapter before it cliffhangs in an unexpected direction, sending us off to who knows where next. And the cast is anchored by a wonderful and unexpected performance from Gertz, who steps up with more of a personality and arc than the bland studliness of Jason Patric as she captures both the heart and fire of the team, pulling them together and keeping them inspired before finally resolving the questions of who she is and where she came from.

There are problems. Solar-Babies Tug and Rabbit are just there and don't get much of anything in the way of exploration. Even Metron trumps them with a great arc as his cynicism and fears are repeatedly challenged until he finally gives his full support to the others. The Warden feels like a setup without a payoff, especially since Charles Durning is the one giving us the opening narration. Some of the action is clumsily choreographed, the worst being a scene where the kids have to jump a large gap in a bridge. And why is Smokey Robinson the centerpiece of the soundtrack? And why the smooth soul pop jingle "Love Will Set You Free"? What does that forgettable croon have to do with anything in this story?

Otherwise, I quite like this film. I like the characters that feel like real kids instead of over-developed Hollywood archetypes. I like the world, with it's mysterious past and legends of its own already set in place. I like Bohdai, a skilled combination of matte f/x and animation, who's never really explained if he came from space or represents the spirit of the Earth itself. I like the torture device that makes people shit themselves with a hallucination of being covered by ants. I like Sarah Douglas suddenly showing up an hour in, then showing off her flaming fingers. I like Richard Jordan's Grock being an unapologetic impersonation of James Mason as Rommel. I like random bits of slang, like how a game of Skate-Ball will be played "Fair squared!"

I really like this film. It was torn apart by critics when it first came out, then has languished in obscurity ever since with a cult following so small they might as well be hidden in an oasis somewhere. Tony? Angie? Let me know what you think and if you agree this is a forgotten gem, or another case of Noel finding a love for something odd that others just can share.


Tony, Solarbabies would like to be your friend.

Noel’s pick of Solarbabies for November’s Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange reminded me of those random friend requests I get on Facebook from time to time “Solarbabies?... [mumbling] Solarbabies... Solarbabies. Didn’t he sit behind me in 7th grade Pre-Algebra?” The title sounded familiar, and for some reason I knew it involved post-apocalyptic rollerblading - though that’s hardly a stretch, as an apocalypse always seems to renew rollerblading’s popularity - but that was it. My curiosity piqued, I hit “Accept”, and waited for my new “Friend” to post its first awkward message on my wall.

I have seen the future, and it looks dreamy.

Five minutes in, I thought I had this one down pat. It’s the future, water is scarce and is controlled, as everything and everyone is by The State. Factions of good looking, well coifed kids... say, how do they have such fabulous hair when there’s so little water anyway... square off in a form of unsanctioned Rollerball as a way to express themselves, vent their frustration, or prove their worth and climb the narrow and precarious ladder to power. I get it. I know this story. It’s, if not exactly Mad Max, then at least Angsty Max (it was either that or Brat Max - I’m still not sure I made the right call). Only that’s not what it’s about at all. Once Bohdai is introduced, the whole Rollerball game is forgotten and the movie sort of becomes E.T. meets Logan’s Run. If that sounds odd, well, that’s Solarbabies.

When it comes to this type of film, logic is the enemy of enjoyment, so after my preconceptions were shattered like so much glass, I decided to hang up my pointy ears and just go with it. Maybe that’s ultimately why I did enjoy it. I certainly didn’t see the depth in it that Noel did, but it’s likely I would’ve missed all of that anyway. Either Noel’s superior perception in these matters - and I mean that sincerely - allowed him to see things I was incapable of, or his penchant for tearing stories apart and putting them back together in a way that makes them run more smoothly simply caused him to replace certain ideas with better ones, or fill in the areas the writer left blank. Either way, I really need to go back and re-watch this film some day with the points he made in mind. Maybe this is the 2001 of post-apocalyptic rain-creating alien orb rollerblading movies and I was just too blinded by the Solar-babies dazzling white teeth to see it. Speaking of which, how come their teeth... oh, never mind.

Ultimately, Solarbabies is a cinematic cup of vanilla pudding. It’s pleasant, if maybe a little bland, but it goes down easy, and so earnest is every frame of this film that it endeared itself to me. The cast is a perfect balance of fresh-faced newcomers not yet soiled by Hollywood pretense, and solid veterans who’ve honed their craft on sharper surfaces, but still approach the material with zest. Noel, you may not exactly have made me a convert to the cult of Bohdai, but I’m not at all sorry I showed up for the ceremony. And honestly, my hair has never looked better.


Going into this movie, I had no idea what to expect. Solarbabies is such a strange name. It definitely has a sci-fi sound to it, but it calls up the idea of little crawling toddlers that come from the sun, and are perhaps made of heat and gas and fire themselves. But I knew from the cover, at least, that there were also going to be some normal human kids as well.

I was a little disappointed to find out that it was, in fact, the name of a sports team. Not just because I was cheated out of those babies made of sun energy, but because, with the movie starting with a game, I was worried that this was essentially going to be The Mighty Ducks in a post-apocalyptic future. Having now actually watched the film, I can't help but think that maybe that would have been a better alternative.

The film's main problem is that it tries too hard to incorporate too much, so I'm just left lost. There are apparently at least three different factions of people: the evil ruling class, the warriors trying to tear them down, and the more wild tribe that is left to their own devices. We see glimpses of them at different points, but besides the ruling class, their roles hardly feel important. We have three different villains in the bully, the leader of the prison, and then a mysterious woman who is trying to figure out the secret of Bohdai, and then they throw in a robot toward the end just because. Considering that Bohdai destroys things for the kids with just a simple thought, all the conflict is kind of pointless.

There are good points. Most of the kids give good performances, and with the exception of Jason and Tug, are all given distinct personalities (though Rabbit's is extremely stereotypical). As a fan of Heroes, it was fun to see Adrian Pasdar in this early role as well. The moment where Bohdai makes it rain inside their hideout is great. You really feel like this is the first experience these kids have ever had with rain, and they are really loving it. The bad guys have a machine that allows them to torture people by making them see their worst fear come to life, and that's a fantastic concept by itself. But once the kids chase after Daniel, I started to get impatient.

I think one of the moments that was particularly telling to this pacing problem was when Terra introduces everyone to her native tribe, the warriors. We spend a lot of time seeing their world, despite the fact that these people aren't going to affect the climax of the film at all. Terra wants to stay and be with her family again, but Jason tells her they have to move on and find Daniel. Yes, please move on.

With a little stronger focus on the plot and reining in some of the wilder ideas in this film, I think it could have been much stronger. Unfortunately, as it stands, it feels like someone trying to condense multiple stories into one, and we're just not seeing enough to make these meandering pieces fit together. This is not the first time that Noel and I have watched the same film, noticed the same things, and it turns out that he enjoys them while I do not. It won't be the last either. But I'm not sorry I watched it, and he may be right that repeated viewings help this film. Maybe some time later when I'm feeling up to it I'll revisit it and see if I can pick up on those subtle details he mentions.


Let me clarify right up front that I'm not arguing this is a great, or even particularly good, movie. Especially in terms of the messy narrative. Bohdai feels like he swooped in from some other 80s kids movie and hijacked what should have been a typical post-apocalyptic plot about freedom and gaining control over your own destiny, and despite him showing an ability to move and act on his own, still ends up swapping hands - even into the hands of the villains - with very little control over his own fate. The Eco Warriors are set up, then revealed leading up to the climax, then completely disappear instead of taking their rightful place within that climax. The torture device is set up but never seen again, and it's "experience your worst fears" power is never once used on one of our heroes. Like Jason, who fears the fact that he doesn't know who he is or what he wants his life to be (another element of setup that never gets a payoff). Or Darstar, escaping into the fantasy of old magic in the hopes of finding his own form of expression. Speaking of, Darstar is one of the most obvious of the unexplored elements as he steals Bohdai, but we never see him interact with the globe in any way, and then he's captured in the end, only to turn up in a cage without any direct confrontation between him and the villains. A confrontation like, I don't know, on the torture table that they took the effort to setup!

This is a heavily flawed movie, and I think a lot of it has to do with the development. The original draft was by Walon Green, who started a steady writing career with the script The Wild Bunch, then carried on with stuff ranging from Sorcerer and Crusoe to Robocop 2 and Disney's Dinosaur (way back when it was supposed to be a cel animated film that was shelved after The Land Before Time stole its thunder), before settling into television and being one of the chief writers of the various installments of the Law & Order franchise. I'd imagine his story had more of a focus on the sport, with the lead kids eventually breaking free in their quest to control their own destiny, and maybe hooking up with rebels and blowing up the villains' base (never said it would be an original plot :P). The next writer to come in was Douglas Metrov, and looking at the bizarre features and shorts he'd go on to self-produce following this - Little Eden, The Flute Player, Ephemora - I'd bet Bohdai and the metaphysical aspects were all his doing. There's a definite conflict to the narrative of a story that sets up and was meant to go one way, only for Bohdai to slip in and suddenly yank it another, with the entire climax feeling like a mix of both intentions, and a bunch of other random stuff is thrown in to try to make sense of it. Director Alan Johnson (a dance choreographer whose prior - and, to date, only other - helming credit is the Mel Brooks comedy To Be or Not To Be) does an admirable job of letting the cast shine, depicting the tattered world they live in, and giving a lot of energy and excitement to things - a few clumsy action bits aside - but he can't fix the broken story.

And, yet, I still like it. While the ideas don't fit together, I still like their presence. While elements lack a payoff, I still like their setup. It makes the experience far richer and colorful than it could have been, and the inconsistent narrative actually gives it, for me at least, the feel of that point where a realistic story and the allegorical myth it would inspire are transitioning from one to the other. That these are the events of a future that could have happened, but are already being blurred and sensationalized by the generations who would retell it a few generations later. I fully admit this interpretation is just me projecting onto the film as there's no bookend device to suggest any of what I just claimed, but that's the feeling, intentional or no, that the film leaves me with, and why I get swept up in riding the lines that blur between grounded rationality and flights of fantasy. It's not good, but I find it a fascinating experience, and I also just really dig the kids and their world and their quest to change things so they're free to find their own way to define and express themselves. I'm totally building on things that are more suggested than apparent, but they're still there, and while I totally get them not working for everyone - you especially, Angie - there's still a bizarre little magic that made them work for me.

Angie, you're also spot on about the name. Solarbabies conjures up such significantly different images in the mind than what's present in this film, and I figure that confused association, mixed with the poor and limited marketing the film suffered (just look at that crappy trailer below), was a lethal blow to any interest this film might have drummed up and its ability to connect with people. And now I totally want a film about flaming sun babies. :D

Tony, I'm glad you were charmed by the movie, if, understandably, not entirely caught up in it. I actually didn't expect you to like it much at all, but figured the 80s hair would win over some small part of you. Imagine my delight that it did. :) I need to point out one major error: that there isn't a single pair of rollerblades in the entire film. They're all roller skates. While inline skates had existed for decades, they never caught on until the brand name industry Rollerblade perfected what had, till then, been a troublesome breaking mechanism, and triggered a public phenomena when they hit the market in 1987, just one year after this film was released. Imagine if production had been delayed just a hair longer and someone saw the opportunity to latch onto the popular new product and cross-market it with this film. Alas.

Ultimately, this is a tough film to recommend. I don't always know how people will react to it, mainly because it's a film that doesn't always know what it's trying to be. As with the lead kids, it seems like a work initially trapped in the conventions of a sports movies, only for Bohdai to give it a reason to break free and wander about in search of its own destiny, leading it down random and unexpected paths while the more conventional film is always nipping at its heels. This doesn't make the film a success, but it makes it something unusual and unexpected, and that alone is enough to at least make me interested. It also helps that the cast is strong (especially Gertz, who deserves to be singled out for praise again - despite that scene where she has the ridiculously up-swept bangs), there's a solid design to the costumes and worldbuilding, and the direction is mostly pretty solid and engaging. I get that most people won't, rightfully, connect with it, or will be annoyed by the unusual aspects that charmed me, but I hope that the word gets out to the people who would so they know this odd little obscurity is lying in wait for them to delight to.

We'll be back on the 1st of December with a pick from Tony: Revenge of the Ninja (1983)


Anonymous said...

I like the site but your ideas about the writing of this film are completely wrong. The artist Douglas Antony Metrov came up with the idea and first draft in the early 80s, as well as a lot of the designs for the world. Some of the artwork used to be up on his website and it appears to have been a much artier film than what took place. In the original designs the gang are much young children making their name a little more apt. The post-apocalyptic setting, the mystic bodhi and the escape and pursuit were all already there.

When it got bought by Brooksfilm, old hand Walon Green was brought in to help Metrov with structure and dialogue. Green was pleased with his work until he sat down and watched the finished project with Maurice Jarre. According to him, director Alan Johnson completely ruined the film. Jarre had signed up based on the original script and didn't know what to do. (Alot of this info is in Patrick McGilligan's screenwriter book)

Keep up the good work

NoelCT said...

Thanks for the info, drfgsdgsdf. I'll admit I was mostly just guessing on the order of the writing based on the order in which the two were credited, but writer's guild rules can make that tricky to be certain of, so it's good to know there's some additional backstory out there. I'll definitely look into picking up McGilligan's book.