Judge David Johnson is a Solarbaby—in his heart, that is.
Who will rule the future?
Dismissed as pop culture fluff when it was released in 1986 and, subsequently tagged with the unfair label of "s—-- cinema," Solarbabies, Alan Johnson's audacious—and criminally misunderstood—futuristic science fiction tale offers a compelling subtext on the nature of the human soul and the duality of man.
Facts of the Case
It is the future. Much of the earth's water has dried up, and the remaining resources are under the strict control of the E-Protectorate, a state-run fascist organization led by Grock (Richard Jordan), a ruthless enforcer who seeks to preserve the E-Protectorate's stranglehold on the precious water. Legend has it that an interstellar visitor will free the planet's water for all peoples to enjoy, thus dismantling the E-Protectorate's rigid power structure.
Meanwhile, at one of the E-Protectorate's government-run orphanages, a group of friends who have dubbed themselves the "Solarbabies," compete in the sport of skateball, a hybrid of hockey, lacrosse, and roller derby, earning a reputation as the best of the teams. Led by Jason (Jason Patric, Narc), the Solarbabies frequently break the rules of their orphanage, sneaking out to play illegal games of skateball against their arch-rivals the Scorpions.
But destiny beckons them for greater things, when Daniel (Lukas Haas, Brick) stumbles upon a glowing alien orb called Bodhi, which turns out to be the prophesized deliverer, entrusting his safety with the Solarbabies. But when Bodhi is stolen, Jason, Terra (Jami Gertz), and the rest of the Solarbabies embark on a cross-country roller-skating marathon to bring him back—and save the world.
Solarbabies is a remarkable exploration into a number of human archetypes, and can spawn a litany of analyses, but for the purposes of this review and considering the abbreviated space, I will only focus on the most prevalent interpretation of Johnson's magnum opus—Solarbabies: The duality of man.
Solarbabies as Commentary on Duality and the Conflict of Man's Soul
To stay within the boundaries determined by law or to break free and liberate oneself at personal risk? It is a question that lies at the heart of all human beings; a conflict between the heart and the mind, the reasoned rational and the emotional irrational, the "rebel" and the "remain," and it is the crux upon which Solarbabies rests. As the film opens, we are informed that the future Earth has seen its water supply drained, corralled by the E-Protectorate. This totalitarian regime has left the populace languishing in the burned and barren wastelands of a harsh landscape. In government-run orphanages, children, most of whom have been stolen from their families, find themselves facing indoctrination programs and strict rules and boundaries. Breaking the rules holds taxing repercussions, as witnessed in the introductory scene where the Solarbabies and Scorpions square off for an underground game of skateball and are subsequently caught. In this instance, the Solarbabies are forced to dig large ditches, a two-sided symbolic expression of what the Solarbabies, through their defiance, face. First, the ditch-digging, mandated by the orphanage's warden, is constructed as meaningless and physically exhausting menial work, a traditional measure for work camps of totalitarian regimes to purge rebellious behavior and crush the dissenting spirit. Yet (and this is the first hint at the genius of Johnson's vision), there is a second meaning to the digging; it is no coincidence that the holes are deep and shaped in rectangular fashion. These are graves the Solarbabies are digging, burial pits for their freedom-craving instincts, their very souls if you will, if they continue on the status quo mandated from the powerful forces. In a sense, the ditch-digging scene, while discounted by many as a throwaway (or, even more offensive, as a means of seeing star Jami Gertz soaked in perspiration), is in fact a pivotal sequence, responsible for prompting Jason, Terra, and the rest of the Solarbabies to shake off the oppressive—yet oddly comforting—shackles of the way-of-the-world, and sojourn on a dangerous vision quest to recover Bodhi, the prophesized deliverer who will bring water back to the masses. The fact that they accomplish this challenge on roller skates speaks not only to the cultural phenomenon of 1986, but also to Johnson's astute use of the skate as a fluid conveyance that allows the Solarbabies to "break free and outmaneuver their slower captors, carried by their skates, their hopes and their dreams." (Vaisler, 211).
This inner tension, to "rebel" or to "remain," is manifested in the Solarbabies, specifically in the characters of Terra as the idealist and Metron (James LeGros) as the realist, the most pragmatic member of the team who consistently advices against risk-taking and, in fact, almost voted to stay at the orphanage. Metron, grappling with his own insecurities, and almost certainly feeling the effects of the lifelong brainwashing inflicted upon him, is resistant to such hyper-idealized musing and often voices his displeasure. He eventually comes to embrace a diluted and less-radical version of Terra's utopian ideals, a cautious optimism so to speak. Towards the end of the film, he pole-vaults over the E-Protectorate's HQ security fence to disable the locks and let the Solarbabies into the facility, where they will ultimately prove to be successful in their goal to free the Earth's water. The pole-vaulting scene is also symbolic, as Metron frees himself—at great personal risk—of the self-constructed confines of overt pragmatism he had depended upon his entire life and overcomes, that is leaps over, both the physical fence (protecting the E-Protectorate from outside influences) and the mental fence (protecting Metron from outside influences, as built in part by the E-Protectorate itself). It is the ultimate act of defiance for Metron, akin to the emergence of a butterfly from a pupa stage, as he bids farewell to the comforting and claustrophobic construct of his own will, and frees his spirit, which will lead to the downfall of the craftsmen of that very construct.
On the other extreme, Terra, throughout the film, urges her comrades to strive forward and search for a place where they can all belong; a home away from the overreaching tendrils of the E-Protectorate. And yet this unbridled idealism proves itself to be just as limiting as Metron's reliance on rigid practicality. If Terra is the conscience of the group, the emotional engine pushing them ever forward, it is her life-changing revelation at the beginning of third act, the very realization of the utopia she had so fervently strove for, that very nearly derails the destiny of the Solarbabies and, ironically enough, the true manifestation of the "freedom" she so vigorously pursued. After a daring rescue from Tireland, a grizzled outpost in the middle of the desert, Terra is transported to an enclave populated by former Eco-Warriors (the armed resistance to the E-Protectorate). There, she meets her father and his people, who have found a melting glacier that offers them all the water they need. On the surface, it is indeed the "home" Terra is looking for, a stereotypical version of what Utopia would look like—bearded men, attractive women, flowing robes, exotic flora, and clean water. And she is lulled by the siren song of her home, which distracts her from the true freedom, the eradication of the E-protectorate and the resulting dispersal of water for all to enjoy, not just her family." (Emmons, 834). Interestingly, Terra, who so unflaggingly criticized Metron for his reluctance to embrace freedom, is prepared to remain herself. Though her new-found home is certainly different from the orphanage (I do not presume to morally equivocate between the two locales), her insistence on settling in lieu of surging forward and completing the task of freeing the water for the entire planet is, on closer inspection, just as selfish as Metron's desire to stay within the orphanage's walls. Both choices would hamstring the Solarbabies' chances of overthrowing the E-Protectorate.
The fulcrum on which these tensions balance is the character of Jason. As the de facto leader of the Solarbabies, his influence is great. Harboring a romantic attraction towards Terra, he is, obviously, inclined to side with her on many issues crucial to the group and in fact does so with respect to the decision to head into the desert. But the tables turn on Terra during a conversation in the Eco-Warrior cave. There Terra confesses her urge to stay and pushes Jason to join her, but he resists, opting instead to leave this "home," and pursue the true home, that is a communal Earth, fully restored with its water. It presents a conundrum to Terra who, up to this point, has enjoyed a strong seat of power and impressive influence on Jason's decision-making. But when faced with the truth of what freedom really is, the façade of her supposed destiny is peeled back and revealed as a dressed-up variation of the instinct to be complacent. Ironically, Metron, who had been chastised so harshly, has already joined Jason on the continuing quest.
There is another level of symbolism at work in Solarbabies, which even more explicitly details the overarching theme of human duality and conflict within the soul: the character of Bodhi. Many critics have pinned a Mosaic label on Bodhi, claiming the alien orb "leads his people through the desert wasteland, ultimately to the promised land, but not before parting the seas to vanquish his foes." (Pierce, 215). While the comparison is valid, I feel a more appropriate analogy is to Jesus Christ. The parallels are difficult to ignore: Bodhi comes down from heaven, takes the form of a vulnerable being, promises salvation from oppression, holds children in high regard, heals physical weakness (e.g., Daniel's deafness), suffers by the hands of the very people he has come to save, breaks his Earthly bonds to usher in a new kingdom, and ultimately ascends into the heavens. In fact, before Bodhi's ascension he dissipates into an energy form, flowing through the Solarbabies, who mention that he "will still be with them." This scene is obviously analogous to the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles (the Solarbabies, here) and the reality and power of the Triune Godhead and the road to orthodox Christian salvation was unsheathed. Salvation in the film is the spread of water, and one can not dismiss the potency of the water symbolism when taken into a Scriptural context: Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. The woman said to him, "Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?" (John 4: 10-12). Like the Messianic Christ, Bodhi has supplied the peoples of the Earth with living water, which will quench both their physical and spiritual thirsts (the desire to be free of the E-Protectorate). Some critics, like Spengler, attempt to subvert the Christ imagery in Bodai, pointing to the scene where Bodai calls down thunder, lightning, and rain in the Solarbabies' club room, "which is quite the opposite of what we see in the New Testament, when Jesus calms the storms, versus creating them." (Spengler, 345). It is, at first glance, a damning criticism—until one looks at the Bible as a whole and notes that God throughout brings down harsh weather to meet His Divine needs. Jesus is the Logos and therefore brings down the water himself. The Messiah comparison to Bodhi stands firm.
All of this goes toward the duality motif because Jesus was famously fully-God and fully-man, the inner conflict extraordinaire, and Bodhi exhibits a similar duality. In the film, he is fond of laughter and playfulness and feels fear and pain (human qualities), yet also possesses unfathomable power (Divine qualities). How does this match up with the conflict of the remain and the rebel as exhibited by Terra and Metron? Simply put, the Bodhi, like Christ, knew that his suffering was required for the deliverance of mankind and he was forced to balance his power (Bodhi could have transformed into his spirit state at any moment during the prolonged tortured sequence—rebelling) with his duty (remaining in the course of his destiny, despite the pain and potential of destruction, to see true freedom spilled forth). Bodhi's disposition never falls too far on either end of the "rebel" or "remain" spectrum, and like Jason, Bodhi finds an equilibrium of the two tensions, and succeeds in his destiny. It is appropriate that Jason exemplifies this trait as in many ways he is the chosen mortal mechanism for affecting change, having been granted a vision by Bodhi early in the film.
You see this duality exhibited in other characters as well. Grock is far on the "remain" side, eclipsing even Metron in his desire to maintain the status quo. Grock of course benefits the most from the status quo, as the water hoarding of the E-Protectorate grants him immense power. To him, Bodhi endangers all that is important to him, so he must be destroyed. At the other end is Darstar, an orphan of Native American descent who sees Bodhi as his personal deliverer, a vehicle for him to escape the orphanage and find acceptance with his people in the wastelands. But this too leads to Bodhi's endangerment, as Darstar is the perpetrator of the original theft, and the man indirectly responsible for Bodhi falling into the hands of the E-Protectorate. Darstar, like Grock, has given himself wholly over to a competing tension with his soul, forsaking the other, and placing into peril Bodhi's fate to bring about true freedom and world change. Darstar and Grock, having shifted so profoundly to opposite ends of the diapason, have placed their hopes in flawed, Earth-bound commodities. For Darstar, it is an owl, a vulnerable creature whose fatality nearly ruins him emotionally; for Grock it is technology, and the bitter irony of his misplaced faith is spelled out brilliantly in the end, when he falls prey to an out-of-control robot.
On a final note, I'd like to pay special attention to the title "Solarbabies." Also known as "Solarwarriors," the film benefits so much more from the former title. Though some have leveled brutal criticism at the title—"a confusing mess of words, less a title of a film with such far-reaching cultural and philosophical implications and more the name of a brand of Willy Wonka candy." (Jenkins, 25).—I have long felt Solarbabies to be a brave and superb choice. Taken into the context of all I've discussed here, with respect to dueling longings of the human soul, the Christ metaphor, and the revelation of supreme truth, "Solarbabies," and the imagery that it conjures—the sun as a life-giving force, much like Bodhi, the characters as "babies," growing into their fates and learning to temper the urge to rebel with the urge to remain—is nothing short of a genius, like the cinematic masterwork that it is attached to.
A massively influential piece of work and multi-layered exploration into what it means to be a human with free will, Solarbabies stands tall over so many lesser entries into the post-apocalyptic-teen-action-scifi-roller-skating-adventure genre. Its release on DVD has been long-awaited, though the presentation is ultimately lacking. The film looks fine—though aged—in its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (also available in full frame on the flipside). The 2.1 surround mix is shallow. No extras, sadly, accompany.
A towering achievement in film and theological commentary, Solarbabies may be considered…okay, I can't perpetrate this lie any longer…
This movie is stupid, corny, nonsensical, and ridiculous. There, I said it. Ah…I feel so much better now.
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