A couple of years ago I watched the Russian sci-fi epic Solaris from 1972, directed by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. This is really one of the best of the cerebral sci-fi movies out there, filled with awesome visuals and make-you-think moments, and the original is miles better than Clooney's remake. That said, when I picked up 1986's Solarbabies, I was fully under the impression that this was a "porn rip-off" of Solaris, along the lines of Flesh Gordon, Star Whores, and Slut Trek II: The Wrath of Schlong. Fortunately (or sadly, depending on your tastes), within ten minutes of starting, I realized that Solarbabies is NOT a lesbian-filled hardcore version of Solaris, but a completely different movie about rollerskating hooligans in a dystopian future world. And yet, I actually finished watching it. And wrote a review. I am getting old.
This particular dystopian world has come about due to the "drying up" of the earth. The only water to be had is controlled by the "Protectorate", which is apparently some sort of neo-fascist military junta. To be fair, though, if you do have a water shortage of this magnitude, you want what's left to be in the hands of some group with the power to ration and regulate it efficiently, and often the military is the best option. Sure, they might get a bit heavy-handed at times, but the level of corruption and inefficiency has to be better than in civilian governments.
Anyway, our story concerns a certain "orphanage camp", set out in the parched barren desert at the edge of the wastelands. Here, unwanted kids are raised by the state in an almost draconian military school style. Armed guards and ultra-strict regulations ensure that order and discipline are kept at all times, and the kids grow up to be productive members of the Protectorate state or they don't make it out at all.
Oddly, in this future they play a roller derby type of game with a round concrete arena and lacross gear. This was 1986, remember, and rollerskates were having a resurgence in popularity across America. Actually, during the "roller skate era" I was living up in the mountains where it snowed nine months out of the year, so trying to find a stretch of sidewalk to actually skate on was difficult. Also, I didn't have a television, which made it hard to keep up on the latest trends. I know, sad for me.
The "Stricter" (which seems to be kind of a Military Governor) of the orphanage sponsors his "personal team" of kids, called the "Scorpions". These are all the jocks, preps, and pretty boys of the orphanage, if that makes any sense, and have special privileges that the other kids do not.
The Stricter is a crazyass control freak who likes to mete out punishment with an iron fist and with sadistic pleasure. And he loves to wear padded vinyl. Reminds me of my first wife (the sadism thing, not so much the vinyl).
"I drink your milkshake!"
There is another team, this one made up of five scruffy teenagers who call themselves the "Solarbabies". It seems that there are other teams like this one in the orphanage, but our story concerns only the Solarbabies. They are the ultimate underdogs, all geeky and mismatched, but with heart and moxie. If this all sounds like Dodgeball, then you'd be right, but it also sounds like every lousy David-versus-Goliath sports movie from Hoosiers to Semi-Pro, and except for the unique PA setting, offers very little new.
The Solarbabies are sponsored by the Warden, who is a very familiar face, though I can't really place him (Charles Durning!).
Our movie proper opens with an "unsanctioned" match between the Scorpions and the Solarbabies, out in an old outdoor skate park that's considered off-limits. These two teams despise each other for a variety of reasons, and they take their dislike out on the court. They roll around and beat on each other for a while, playing like Canadian hockey teams with thrown elbows and lots of high-sticking. The match is broken up by the arrival of the Stricter and some guards, who START SHOOTING TO KILL!!! Wow! Discipline is indeed strict here.
No one gets killed, and the Scorpions are severely admonished by the Stricter, who is more pissed that they were losing to the Solarbabies than the fact that they broke curfew.
The Solarbabies escape, except for one little deaf boy (played by a very young Lukas Haas) who dashes into a cave to elude his pursuers. In this cave he dinks around and finds a hidden room, which has a nicely swept path through it so he won't wipe out on his skates. In here he discovers a glowing orb of light the size of a bowling ball! This "orb" is somehow sentient, and the boy even has a conversation with it. The orb also somehow "heals" his deafness! It's a miracle, I tells ya!
So the boy sneaks the orb back into his room and hides it in a box. I flash back to Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, where Kenny took a similar-sized orb he found in the woods back home. Only that orb turned out to be the egg of a horrifying alien bug-monster from another dimension that nearly laid waste to the world. Our orb will only bring laughter and jocularity to the world. I'd rather have the bugs, at least they were interesting to look at.
The kid with the orb thingie.
Ok, this orb is named "Bodhi", and is actually some sort of alien thingie or something. A wasteland myth tells of a "star" falling from heaven to give free water to the huddled masses. Or something. Whatever. I know you don't care, so why should I?
Anyway, the next morning the Solarbabies are punished by the Warden by having to dig a hole "20 square meters" out in the desert by sundown. Eeek. Someone call 60 Minutes, this place needs to be investigated!
Ok, here's as good a place as any to meet our five Solarbabies.
Terra is played by 21-year old Jami Gertz, from the underrated Still Standing sitcom (which is quite funny, though it's one of the more flagrant violators of the "Rule of Disproportionate Hotness", which says that only in sit-coms will a hot sexy woman end up with a frumpy fat dude. For more examples of this Rule, see According to Jim, The King of Queens and even Everybody Loves Raymond in some weird way).
Jason, played by 20-year old Jason Patric in his first feature film role. Jason is the movie's designated hero/stud muffin, with awesome 1980's hair and the kind of quirky sense of humor that the girls in junior high seem to adore. Jason is Terra's PG-13 love interest, though they never do anything more risque than kiss once.
Metron, played by 24-year old James LeGros, very early in what would become a solid career. Metron wears wire-rimmed glasses and knows lots of sciencey stuff (hence the glasses).
Tug, played by 20-year old Peter DeLuise, who for my money is best know as Dagwood on the awesome but sadly forgotten SeaQuest DSV series from the mid-1990s. Tug has feathered hair and those vacant, dumbass jock eyes that seem to gloss over when something more complicated than See Cat Run pops up.
Rabbit, the Token Black Kid, played by twentysomething Claude Brooks, who is the only one of the kids who didn't end up with a successful film or television career. Rabbit wears disturbingly tight jeans and was apparently told to act like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.
Just a general pick, but everyone in this movie has the most brilliantly white teeth you can imagine. Almost like they are Hollywood actors and not abused orphans in a post-holocaust world, eh? Maybe they needed to caste exclusively English actors and actresses, then they could have had "authentic PA teeth". This is one of my biggest pet-peeves with PA movies, though I guess it wouldn't look too good to have everyone wander around with nasty, diseased funky teeth, especially the ladies. But, didn't the Gyrocopter Pilot in The Road Warrior have rotten teeth? That movie did fine. Anyway, damn, I'm never going to finish this one if I don't stay on target here.
After the dig, the kids are allowed to go back to their room (co-ed room, w00t!). There they meet the little boy and he shows them the orb he found. For it being such an amazing thing, the kids don't really react very shocked, more like bemused. Perhaps the orb is giving off some sort of "good feelings vibe" that causes the kids to be so mellow when shown what might possibly be either a new lifeform or an alien from outer space.
When one of the kids "wishes" for a rain storm, the orb rewards them with an indoor rain shower! With the same naive innocence, they don't even question this, but just jump around in the water and laugh and hug.
Rain storm! Terra gets all clean.
And now we have a "recreational skate period"! Oh my God, you cannot be serious. I am not seeing this. I am not seeing this. I am not seeing this. I am not seeing this. I am not seeing this. I am not seeing this.
Aww damn, I am seeing this.
Also in there we get a lame testosterone-fueled fistfight between Jason and the leader of the Scorpions over Terra. The Scorpion kid, who looks like Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies and sorta plays the same arrogant bastard role here, seems to have the hots for Terra, though it may be just a way to get back at the Solarbabies for consistently thumping them on the ball court. Jason, needless to say, isn't so happy with this and gives Malfoy a poke in the nose and some harsh words.
Later, Jason talks to the orb alone, having a heart to heart about his hopes and dreams and love and stuff. Jason is quite the dreamer and really wants out of this orphanage one day. The orb hums and purrs receptively and shows Jason some sort of spooky crystal ball effect where he sees a glimpse of the future (him running around and stuff).
Jason talks to the orb.
The other kids now show up and check out the orb some more. The orb is "playful" and likes to be tossed around, so they logically decide to play roller hockey with it! They go out to that forbidden outdoor skate park again (curfew must just be a "suggestion") and play all night, this time using the orb for the ball.
Playing with the orb.
They even manage to form an "energy circle" of sorts, which looks like some mystical prayer circle where everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya. It is, however, one of those "movie visuals" that gets the audience all sappy and sells tickets, so I can see why they worked so hard to make it fit.
The six of them in the energy circle.
All this watched over by another orphan, named Darstar. Darstar is a VERY spiritual kid, though he's deep into American Indian mysticism and all that. He even has a pet owl that obeys his commands (seriously) and feathers in his artfully beaded ponytail. He's played by 21-year old Adrian Pasdar, who was in my wife's favorite show Judging Amy for years, but I've been watching him in Heroes.
Darstar (the face, not the crotch).
Darstar is intrigued by the orb and believes it can help him reach some sort of nirvana, without the peyote and spirit walks. He sneaks in and steals the orb while the kids are away and runs off. Actually he runs away from the orphanage totally, heading off into the wild desert lands with the orb and his owl. We learn here that Darstar is a "Chicani", and there are still some of his tribe "camped in the wastes", so the inference is that he's headed back to his people.
The little boy also escapes, following the orb's siren call as he's the one kid most "in tune" with the thing. The staff turns the place upside down the next morning when the kids turn up missing, but they are both long gone by then. The Solarbabies, very concerned for the safety of the boy, vote to follow after him, even though it means never returning or severe punishment if caught. Metron mentions that "surgical alteration" is in their future if they are caught and we cringe at the thought of Terra being made to look like Britney Spears for her crimes.
Jason and Terra talk about their options,
while repressing their rampant teenage sexual urges...
So, off they go, skating at top skating speed down and out of the orphanage. For all the armed soldiers here, there is absolutely zero perimeter security! And this is from a place that just had two other kids escape the day before, so you'd think they'd post a few extra guards or something. I think, though, that the idea is that the surrounding wastelands are so inhospitable that anyone dumb enough to try and escape is doomed to a slow, painful death anyway.
Hmm...oddly they are blessed with miles and miles of recently-swept concrete paths, with nary a tripping hazard to be found. Going to let that slide because I'm enjoying listening to the catchy '80s synth-pop song that is playing as they skate away. That's PA quality!
Skating through the wilderness. Filmed in Andalusia, Spain, by the way.
Once found to be gone, the Protectorate soldiers chase after the kids. The soldiers are led by the Stricter plus the nogoodnik Malfoy (now wearing a spiffy Protectorate dress shirt and tie, looking like a USAF Airman, except with a mullet). We see showcased in this scene and throughout the rest of the movie a number of cool trucks, PA dune buggies, and double-sidecar motorcycles (that can be separated into individual cycles if needed).
Protectorate dune buggy.
The soldiers catch up to the kids (kinda duh, motors vs. skates seems like a lopsided chase) and menace them a bit. The kids then reach a matte-painting canyon, and oh no, the matte-painting bridge over it is cut! Using inertia, centrifugal force, and barely-concealed stuntmen, they jump across the divide and flee. The pursuing soldiers chose not to use their nifty laser rifles on them, even though they're only twenty feet away and mocking them without mercy.
Meanwhile, far ahead of them, Darstar reaches the desert camp of his Chicani ancestors. This is really just a collection of buckskin tents and canvas lean-tos seemingly set up in the middle of nowhere, with everyone running around looking like "sci-fi American Indians".
The Chicani camp, that is a lot of man-skin.
Darstar is quickly accepted into the tribe, mostly due to his fancy braided hair and his pet owl. He's taken to meet the tribe's "Elder", who is a crazyass old man living in (and I'm not fucking making this up) a half-buried Styrofoam devil's head filled with wax museum statues representing Mongol khans and Elizabethan executioners. The Elder is amazed at the orb, though he seems to know what it is and foretells great things because of it.
Late at night, the Protectorate attacks the camp! Roaring over the dunes in vehicles, they easily swamp the camp, killing and burning everything in sight. Watch as a dune buggy jumps into a tent, tires spinning and mannequin-posing-as-driver bouncing around, classic stuff. Darstar somehow manages to escape with the orb (huh?), but nearly everyone else is slaughtered.
One Chicani survivor is taken back to the Protectorate base and tortured for his knowledge of the orb. This looks like an extremely expensive set, what with all the fancy computers and polished steel walls and all, just how much was this film's budget?
Chicani dude being tortured on this machine that somehow "materializes
your worst fears", just like the Holodeck on the Enterprise, except without
the constant malfunctions and safety protocol breaches.
It should be noted here that the Stricter asks direct and pointed questions about the orb, but to my knowledge he never knew of it before this scene.
Later, the little boy is met by the rest of the Solarbabies in the charred ruins of the Chicani camp. They reconnect, tell some stories, and bury Darstar's dead owl (?). In some nearby caves that they seek refuge in they find some strangely well-preserved paintings. These paintings tell the story of the "Eco Warriors", horse-mounted freedom fighters who long ago resisted the Protectorate but then faded into history. In a bit of foreshadowing, Terra notices that the emblem of the Eco Warriors (a stylized palm tree) matches this tattoo she has had on her hand all her life.
We go now to the Protectorate Aqua-Bunker (!), which looks just like a hydroelectric dam in Spain with a matte-painting split-screen effect to make it look like the reservoir is covered with a concrete roof. Hahahaha!!! Look, dogs with flashlights on their heads! The Stricter meets with some evil woman scientist who has built a energy harnessing capture thingie. He wants to know if it would destroy the orb if he could ever find it, and she says sure.
Meanwhile, the Solarbabies reach "Tire Town", which is a hugeass post-apocalypse flea market slash junkyard, much like Barter Town from Mad Max 3 but with the addition of skanky hookers who will bang you for a quart of water. There is also a large factory of sorts where they melt down old automobile tires, maybe distilling water from them (not sure). How much money did this sprawling outdoor set cost?!?
A hooker in Tire Town. Eek! Not enough Lysol in the entire world...
What do you know, Darstar is here, working in the tire factory. He has the orb still, though he's pretty disillusioned that it won't do anything magical for him. The Solarbabies retake possession of the orb from an uncaring Darstar and talk about what to do next. They can't go back to the orphanage, obviously, nor can they make a life here in this shabby tire factory in the desert. Tempers flare, harsh words are said and the group is on the verge of fracturing. Terra eventually gets all petulant and stomps out on them, going out to talk to Darstar about birds and stuff.
Aaaiiiggghhh! What the hell is on her head??!!?
Oh, it's just her bangs in the wind. My bad.
The Protectorate show up now, Malfoy in the lead, apparently tipped off that Darstar and the orb are here (though it seems weird that they would know). What ensues is a rather comic chase sequence as the kids on their skates outwit, outlast and outrun a platoon of laser gun-armed soldiers. This one sequence alone shows the "dreaded" Protectorate soldiers to be incapable of any sort of coordinated military tactics and apparently completely incompetent in weapons use. Just once I'd like to see a PA movie in which an evil army actually had some sense.
The tire factory goes ka-boom!
Darstar ends up with the orb again at some point (dropped by the kid) and gets captured by the Protectorate soldiers. Terra disappears in the confusion, which is considerable as the tire factory is busy exploding and everyone is running around yelling and shooting at each other.
The rest of the Solarbabies, sans Terra, escape by rolling down a hill inside big tires. Seriously, just like you and your retarded cousin did in fifth grade. After they beat it out of there, the guys spend the evening lamenting the loss of fair Terra. Jason takes it especially hard, as he was boinking her and all.
Bummed about losing Terra and her sweet ass.
Back now to the Aqua-Bunker, where we see that the poor orb is in that fancy energy harness thingie. Lasers are being shot at it, trying to break it down, and the orb seems to be "screaming" in pain. If it wasn't a cgi ball I'd feel sorry for it. Why again are they trying to kill the orb? That's never explained, but I assume it's because the orb is fabled to "free the water" or something. On a side note, an enormous amount of money must have been spent on this movie, far far more than I would have anticipated. Most (all) of the PA movies I've been reviewing this year have been made on budgets of under a thousand dollars it seems, but Solarbabies has some serious coin behind it.
The evil woman who runs this lab is played by Sarah Douglas, maybe the most recognizable actor or actress in our film to 1986 audiences. She has also devised this awesome "torture robot"! Wow, that looks tacky, what with all those arms and treads and cameras and stuff. The Galactic Empire makes the best torture robots, I say. Just ask Princess Leia.
Evil woman there with the Stricter.
Back to the Solarbabies, who are then captured by bounty hunters! Just two Australian guys, actually, acting over-the-top goofy and dressed like stereotypical Outback adventure guides. Their "attempts at humor" are this movie's most egregious display of PG-13 cutesy and I wanted to kick them both in the balls and eat their souls. Hitched up to a cart made from the trunk of an El Camino, the kids are forced to mule the bounty hunters down the road as they sing bawdy drinking songs and laugh insanely.
Bounty hunters having a grand ole time.
But it's not long before they are enticed into an ambush by a woman whose face is covered by a scarf. As they round a sand dune, the bounty hunters are surrounded by armed men and captured. The kids are freed and they are astonished and happy to see that the veiled woman was none other than Terra! These are the Eco Warriors we heard about earlier, and Terra is now some sort of Warrior Princess! Jesus Christ, movie, slow down! Try and settle one stupid incongruous plotline before you start up another, ok?
Terra as Princess Sandy, Desert Warrior.
Once all the hugging and backslapping dies down, the guys are taken to a network of caves up in the mountains. Here they find an oasis with fresh water fed by an underground glacier! Sure. Is there a geologist in the house? The guys leap around for joy at all this free water and generally speaking everyone is happy.
We then meet the Eco Warrior's leader, a lanky Jesus-lookalike laughably named "Greentree". It turns out, in the twisted movie cliche of forced coincidence, that Greentree is Terra's long-lost father! Seriously! Separated at birth and all that. Imagine the odds!
Greentree there with his daughter.
Some explanation of the Eco Warrior history is given here, but it never figures into the movie's plot, so this is really just another pointless waste of celluloid. At times I get the feeling that this movie's script was cobbled together from several different rewrites.
While Terra is perfectly content to stay here forever with her father and all that water and her cute new cotton robes, the other kids are still thinking about the orb. Jason, in particular, wants to go save the orb, who the little boy can still vaguely "hear" talking to him from somewhere distant. It's not really much of a surprise that they all decided to leave this paradise and go to retrieve the orb. Terra, at first hesitant, eventually jumps onboard the rescue train. She even provides a map (!) of the Aqua-Bunker's internal structure (!) with which they can sneak inside.
The map, a cloth one, at that.
And now off to a nighttime raid on the Aqua-Bunker! Metron pole vaults (hell, yah!) over the perimeter gate to get to the controls to open it (though notice that the stuntman isn't wearing skates when he jumps). He also fries two guards with electricity (dude!) and they dodge the Dobermans with flashlights on their heads long enough to enter the bunker.
Armed only with hockey sticks and wearing full roller-ball outfits (where did those come from?), the kids race through the underground tunnels and passageways of the Aqua-Bunker. This place apparently has all the internal security of a Wal-Mart in Iowa, and they are allowed to skate around virtually unopposed.
The Solarbabies beat up on some soldiers.
Along the way they free Darstar, who was languishing in a small cage. Oddly, Darstar is in there wearing roller skates (!), which is just weird as we've never ever seen him wearing skates before and you wonder why the bad guys would let him lace up before locking him in a six-by-six cage to await execution. Still, now they have an extra pair of hands to fight with.
I was expecting at some point during the climatic ending battle for the Eco Warriors to come riding out of the rising sun to help, but they never did. Maybe they ran out of money and couldn't afford a cavalry charge, but it was a missed opportunity in my opinion.
The ending is just crazyass. They jump into the lab just in time to save the orb. The Stricter dies by the torture robot. Malfoy presumably dies some ironic death. The evil woman has her hands melted off and then is electrocuted. The entire Aqua-Bunker explodes. And all the kids escape to the surrounding ridgeline to watch as the water gushes out of the dam, free now to irrigate the land and nourish the masses and all that. The orb, its work here done, flies off into space again to look for some other barren planet to save. The kids all join hands and do that energy circle thing again as the closing credits roll.
Written in March 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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