Every so often, you come across a movie where it seems like the only participants who weren’t putting in a serious effort were the ones in charge. 1986’s sci-fi flick Solarbabies is such a film, where it seems like the director, producers, and screenwriters just didn’t care enough to put any polish on it. It’s too bad, because the actors — led by Jami Gertz and Jason Patric, who would pair up again a year later in the cult classic vampire film The Lost Boys — all seem to be taking the film reasonably seriously, putting in honest efforts at making their characters believable when the script isn’t actively working against them.
Clearly inspired by Mad Max and Rollerball, but aimed more at the teenaged crowd, Solarbabies is actually a pretty fun (albeit intrinsically goofy) film if one can overlook the flaws. Had those flaws actually been addressed, it could have even been a good film, though likely not a stellar one.
These kids were filming out in the desert. The least the writers could have done is make sure they had a good script.
The first problem for this film, and I know you’ve already noted this for yourselves, is the title. If I hadn’t already known this was a science fiction film from the 80s, I would have concluded it was the third entry in the Baby Geniuses series; Baby Geniuses, Super Babies, Solarbabies; makes sense, right? Fortunately, the film is nowhere near as dire as that, but it’s interesting to note that the writers were clearly aware of the problem, as two of the characters even discuss the wimpiness of the name. The Solarbabies in the movie are a team of student athletes, players in a game called “skateball”, which is a bit of a mash-up between hockey and lacrosse, on roller skates. They’re all orphans, and reside in an orphanage owned and run by the E-Police; but then, everything is run by the E-Police in this dystopian future. Through some unspecified disaster, most of the Earth’s water has dried up, and a corporation known as the Protectorate seized control of the rest. Through their E-Police, they maintain order and ration out the water to maintain society. It’s implied that not all of the orphans present were given up voluntarily; the orphanage is meant to indoctrinate children into the Protectorate’s society, and train them as E-Police (there seems to be no other option available). Charles Durning, visibly embarrassed but gamely trying to pretend he respects the script, is the orphanage’s warden, who tries to be tough but fair in running the orphanage. Richard Jordan plays Strictor Grock, the local head of the E-Police, fascistic, cruel, and hungry for even more power. He spends most of his time on screen cheerfully chewing the scenery.
In order to wear that heavy suit in an arid desert world, he must really be… cold-hearted. Wokka wokka!
The Solarbabies are consist of five players and one “team mascot”. During the day, they study at the school and work chores — often as punishment for breaking the rules. At night, they play skateball, and at all times they dream of a freedom that doesn’t seem to be available — until the mascot, deaf kid Daniel (Lukas Haas) finds a glowing orb in a cave after a game of skateball. The orb heals his ears, and communicates telepathically (unheard to the audience) calling itself “Bodhi”. When Daniel introduces the orb to the group, it makes it start raining in their club room, kicking off the plot. Jason (Jason Patric) is the leader of the group, and while it’s possible to see a little bit of uncertainty in Patric’s acting (this was his first film role), overall he does a good job of portraying Jason as being used to commanding this group, but unused to the situations they wind up in once the adventure begins. Jami Gertz plays Terra, Jason’s girlfriend and the “heart” of the group; she looks after Daniel and the rest of the group in turn looks after her. Metron (James LeGros) is the brainiac of the group, and in stereotypical fashion, is a bit of a jerk and less prone to adventure — but rather than saddle us with another in a long line of “asshole geeks” in cinema, Metron is supportive of the group and proves useful multiple times. LeGros’s performance occasionally makes it seem as though Metron is simply playing devil’s advocate when he raises objections; whether this is the script’s intent is uncertain, but it’s better than the other way. Unfortunately, the other two members are largely there just to fill out space. Tug (Peter DeLuise) has few lines, fewer meaningful scenes, and the movie would probably be better off without him; though it’s not DeLuise’s fault, exactly, he simply looks too much like Patric in this film and it causes confusion in a couple of action scenes. Rabbit (Claude Brooks) has more lines, but is essentially a stereotypical 80s jive-talking black kid, with nothing more in the way of characterization.
He would later quit the Solarbabies to join the Globetrotters.
Witnessing the rain storm in the club room is another student, Darstar (Adrian Pasdar). Darstar is a problem child for the warden and the Strictor, being rebellious and — despite having been brought in as an infant and never exposed to his culture — embracing his heritage as a Tchigani. The Tchigani, as we learn, are a tribe of Native Americans… or possibly gypsies. It’s a little unclear. There are elements of both in their dress and mannerisms (and by “elements of both”, I mean “stereotypes of both”, of course.) Pasdar’s a decent low-key actor, and he’s pretty convincing in the role, other than the insurmountable challenge of convincing the audience he’s not white. Of course, he has an easier time than Terrence Mann, who plays the leader of the Tchigani in one scene. At any rate, it’s Darstar who gets the plot moving, as he’s interested in seeing if the Bodhi (also called the Sphere of Longinus, in a confused attempt at religious symbolism) can grant him real magic as opposed to the acts of bird-taming he’s been doing. Darstar heads off across the wastelands to find the Tchigani, Daniel follows him to find Bodhi, the Solarbabies follow Daniel, Grock follows the Solarbabies, psycho-kid-in-training Gavial (Peter Kowanko) tags along with Grock, and 76 trombones lead the marching band behind Gavial. Chase scenes, fights, and the occasional mystical special effect result, but while all of it is reasonably fun to watch, it’s all in need of some better directing. A tweak here and there to tighten the sequences up, to make some actions a little easier to follow, and to clarify just what’s actually going on in some of those special effects scenes besides a light show would have been appreciated.
Kumbaya, my lord, kumbaya…
I keep coming back to the disparity between the actors and the lines they’re acting out. This is true even with the smaller roles. I already noted Terrence Mann had a scene as Ivor, leader of the Tchigani people. Mann was already a known Broadway actor at the time, and his portrayal of Ivor is boisterous and commanding — but he’s only there for one scene, and it’s memorable solely for Mann’s delivery, and not the dialogue itself. Sarah Douglas (Ursa from Superman II) is a villainous scientist in this film, and she’s sufficiently chilling that I really found myself wishing that she had some lines. Kowanko’s role as Gavial is filled with lines just begging to be mocked, but through his mannerisms and delivery he succeeds in making the audience want to despise his character for being a villain, not for being mock-worthy. Willoughby Gray, who played the King in The Princess Bride, nearly has another one-scene wonder role here as the Tchigani lore-keeper. Even Alexei Sayle and Bruce Payne, who play a couple of minor bounty hunters, manage to fill their characters with personality in spite of a dearth of clever writing. These aren’t exceptional performances, not any of them, but what’s holding them back isn’t their actors, but the uninspired lines they’re being given.
And it just didn’t have to be that way. A little more time working with the dialogue, smoothing out the wrinkles in the plot and filling in the gaps (of which there are several), and this could have been a pretty good film. Its potential isn’t hard to see, even with the goofiness inherent to the premise. But it seems like the actors were the only ones involved who cared to actually do their jobs.
Even so, I can’t deny that I had fun watching this film, so I can’t give it a truly bad score. But it has far too many flaws for me to give it a truly good score either. But hey, that’s why I have a 5-point scale; sometimes films fall right in the middle for a variety of reasons.