Guilty Pleasure No. 54: Solarbabies (dir by Alan Johnson)


Solarbabies is a film that has a reputation.  And it’s not a good one.

First released in 1986, Solarbabies is one of those post-Mad Max films that takes place in a post-apocalyptic desert society.  There are no more trees.  There is no more rain.  Order is kept by force.  The people are oppressed.  Outsiders live in desert towns that have names like “Tiretown.”  Children are forced to grow up in a combination of a prison and an orphanage.  The orphanage’s Warden (played by Charles Durning) mourns for the way the world used to be, before it became a sun-drenched nightmare without plants or water.  The fearsome Grock (Richard Jordan) makes sure that all of society’s rules are followed and the viewer knows he’s a bad guy because he wears a leather trench coat even when it’s over a 100 degrees outside.  (Grock never sweats.  If only the same could be said of the Warden.)  The evil Professor Shandray (Sarah Douglas) experiments on living subjects.  It’s a grim, grim world.

However, hope arrives in the form of a glowing orb!  A ten year-old deaf boy named Daniel (Lukas Haas) finds the orb and, after regaining his ability to hear, he names it Bodhi.  When Darstar (Adrian Pasdar) realizes that he can use Bodhi to protect the people of Tiretown, he steals the orb and runs off with it.  Determined to retrieve Bodhi, Daniel chases after him

How will Daniel survive in the desert?  Well, luckily, he’s not alone!  Daniel was a member of the orphanage’s roller hockey team, the Solarbabies.  Terra (Jami Gertz), Jason (Jason Patric), Metron (James LeGros), Rabbit (Claude Brooks), and Tug (Peter DeLuise) strap on their skates and roll out into the desert.  Pursuing them is Grock and his stormtroopers.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert, an old man named Greentree (Frank Converse) hopes to help the world recover.  Greentree looks like a thin version of Santa Claus and he hopes to bring rain and trees back to the Earth.  Yes, his name is Greentree.  There’s not really much room for subtlety in the world of Solarbabies.

Now, as I said at the beginning of this review, Solarbabies has a reputation.  Today, it’s probably best known for being the film that nearly bankrupted Mel Brooks.  Yes, that Mel Brooks.  When Brooks originally signed on to produce Solarbabies, it was envisioned as being a low-budget sci-fi film that would not have any spectacular special effects.  However, Brooks became convinced that Solarbabies had the potential to be a Star Wars-level hit so he increased the budget.  He also brought in Alan Johnson to direct the film, despite the fact that Johnson was a choreographer who had only directed one other film and had no experience with science fiction.  (Johnson’s previous film had been a remake of To Be Or Not To Be, which starred Brooks and featured Solarbabies’s Charles Durning in a supporting role).  At Brooks’s insistence, the film was shot in Spain to save money.  Unfortunately, no sooner had Johnson and the film’s cast arrived than Spain was hit by a series of unexpected storms that caused production to shut down.  Even when the rain stopped, disagreements between Johnson and the cast delayed the film even further.  The footage that was shot satisfied no one, leading to expensive reshoots.  In the end, Mel Brooks invested close to $20 million dollars in the film, even taking a second mortgage out on his house.  When the film was finally released, it was a critical and box office disaster, though Brooks later said that he did eventually break even after Solarbabies was released on DVD.

So, yes, Solarbabies has a bad reputation and it could be argued that it deserves it.  Tonally, the film’s a mess.  For a film that appears to have been made for a “family” audience, parts of the film are surprisingly violent  Scenes of the Solarbabies playing LaCrosse and cheerfully crossing the desert are mixed with some surprisingly graphic scenes of Grock and Shandray torturing prisoners.  Bodhi is a cute and glowing orb who gives Daniel back his hearing and then later brutally kills a lot of bad guys.  Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, and Charles Durning all seem to be trying to take the film seriously while Richard Jordan and Sarah Douglas give performances that feel more appropriate for a Hammer horror film.  Solarbabies is a bizarre mix of sincerity, sadism, and camp.  Nothing about it makes much sense.

And yet….

Listen, I can’t help it.  When I watched it last week, I enjoyed Solarbabies.  For all of its many and obvious flaws, it’s a hard film not to like.  It’s just so thoroughly ludicrous and messy that watching it becomes a rather fascinating viewing experience.  It’s hard not to, at the very least, be entertained by the sight of the cast roller skating through the desert.  A LaCrosse team battling futuristic Nazis for possession of a glowing orb that can cause rain to fall from a cloudless sky?  As far as I’m concerned, it’s impossible not to enjoy that on some level.

Of course, I seem to be in the minority as far as that’s concerned.  Alan Johnson never directed another movie after Solarbabies, though he did direct some of those really cool GAP commercials that aired in the early aughts.  You know the ones that featured people enthusiastically dancing in khakis?  That was him!  Those commercials are kind of a guilty pleasure themselves.  (Of course, because Mel Brooks nearly didn’t lose his house producing them, they’re not quite as infamous as Solarbabies.)  But still, Johnson stared his directorial career by directing Charles Durning to an Oscar nomination in To Be Or Not To Be and he ended it by directing Durning in a box office flop.  Well, no matter!  I enjoyed Solarbabies and I don’t care who knows it.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace
  35. Valley of the Dolls
  36. The Legend of Billie Jean
  37. Death Wish
  38. Shipping Wars
  39. Ghost Whisperer
  40. Parking Wars
  41. The Dead Are After Me
  42. Harper’s Island
  43. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone
  44. Paranormal State
  45. Utopia
  46. Bar Rescue
  47. The Powers of Matthew Star
  48. Spiker
  49. Heavenly Bodies
  50. Maid in Manhattan
  51. Rage and Honor
  52. Saved By The Bell 3. 21 “No Hope With Dope”
  53. Happy Gilmore

3 responses to “Guilty Pleasure No. 54: Solarbabies (dir by Alan Johnson)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week in Review: 4/25/22 — 5/1/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Pingback: Guilty Pleasure No. 55: The Dawn of Correction | Through the Shattered Lens

  3. Pingback: Guilty Pleasure No. 57: The Voyeurs (dir by Michael Mohan) | Through the Shattered Lens

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