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Solar Crisis – film review

January 21, 2016

SOLAR CRISIS

Notoriously troubled production is seriously flawed – but still worth a look.

solar crisis 1990 - helios and sun

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Screenplay by Joe Gannon and Tedi Sarafian, based on the novel by Takeshi Kawata. Starring: Tim Matheson, Charlton Heston, Peter Boyle, Annabel Schofield, Tetsuya Bessho and Jack Palance. Year of release: 1990. Running time: 111 minutes.

It is the year 2050 and all living things on Earth face mass extinction from a mega solar flare soon to be ejected from the Sun within forty-eight hours. With the hope     of triggering the flare early – thus missing the Earth and sparing the planet from catastrophe, a manned mission is launched to deliver a sentient anti-matter bomb     to the heart of the Sun. Meanwhile, a wealthy industrialist seeks to sabotage the mission; risking the future of humanity for the sake of profit.

A Japanese-financed 50 million dollar US co-production, Solar Crisis was never granted a theatrical release stateside and subsequently disappeared into obscurity following its premier in Japan in 1990. I was first alerted to this film upon reading a write-up in the premier issue of Imagi-Movies Magazine in the Fall of 1993, in which reviewer John Thonen (erroneously as it turned out) attributed the film’s direction to award-winning VFX supervisor Richard Edlund – which immediately piqued my interest; as I was already very familar with Edlund’s work on the original Star Wars trilogy; as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters. It was only with the advent of the internet that I later discovered the film was actually directed by Richard C. Sarafian.

solar crisis helios leaving earth

Loosely based on Takeshi Kawata’s unpublished novel ‘Kuraishisu niju-goju nen’ (‘Crisis: Year 2050’), the screenplay was adapted by Joe Gannon – with rewrites       by Tedi Sarafian (Richard’s son, credited as Crispan Bolt). These rewrites were apparently being done without Gannon’s knowledge while he was penning his second draft; leading to an understandable deflation of enthusiasm on Gannon’s part – once he realized what was going on behind his back. A prolific director of television drama in the 60s, helmer Richard C. Sarafian was best known for the 1971 cult road chase movie Vanishing Point. Sarafian was allegedly unhappy with all the post production meddling which occured during the lead-up to its release – so much so in fact that he ultimately removed his name from the production; using the DGA designated nom de plume ‘Alan Smithee’ instead. After this, Sarafian effectively retired and would never helm another feature again.

If there’s one film which immediately springs to mind while watching Solar Crisis – it would be Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine, as the premise of a manned space mission to detonate a bomb inside the Sun and thus save the Earth is remarkably similar to this later film. With the introduction of Freddy The Bomb in the opening moments; a sentient, self-aware explosive device (voiced by iconic songsmith     Paul Williams) another film which also comes to mind is the seminal 1974 John Carpenter/Dan O’Bannon cult classic Dark Star. Freddy is clearly inspired by the talking thermostellar bombs featured in this earlier film – a likelyhood backed up by the inclusion of a dialogue exchange between the Jack Palance character and the Corin Nemec character revolving around how well the baseball team The Dodgers are doing. Eagle-eyed Dark Star fans will immediately recognize this as a reference to a scene where a remarkably similar conversation takes place between Lieutenant Doolittle and the cryogenically frozen Commander Powell.

As to why scientists (or the military for that matter) would even consider to endow an explosive device with artificial intelligence and a personality; this is never explained. While this concept works perfectly well in the context of an absurdist comedy (as in Dark Star) – when the idea is played straight, as in Solar Crisis, it does tend to raise the question of what advantage could possibly be gained from doing so? If something as lethal as a bomb were self-aware, wouldn’t this needlessly allow the possibility for something to go terribly wrong? While the introduction of a sentient explosive device in Dark Star is clearly meant to be a mechanism for Doolittle to cleverly talk down the malfunctioning Bomb #20 with a spirited discussion of phenomenology, no such narrative justification exists in Solar Crisis for Freddy to be similarly as cognizant.

solar crisis - annabel schofield

Of the cast, stalwart actors Charlton Heston and Jack Palance pretty much steal the show with their shameless scenery-chewing. And although I haven’t read the novel,   I would hazard a guess these story strands which involve Heston (playing Tim Matheson’s military brass father) searching the Californian desert for his grandson, Mike, and Mike’s exploits with Palance’s crazed hermit have been shoehorned into the narrative in order to give the film additional appeal to a US audience. In other changes, Welsh actress Annabel Schofield; who plays genetically-enhanced mission specialist Alexandra Noffe (perhaps the film’s most interesting character) was originally written as a run-of-the-mill robot in the source novel, and it was VFX supervisor and co-producer Edlund who suggested it might be more interesting to have the character rewritten as a woman – in order to provide a love interest for the lead – which, again, would make the film more appealing to American auds. Thanks to his previous comedic roles, Matheson (best known for his featured roles in such comedies as Animal House, 1941 and Up The Creek) is somewhat difficult to take seriously as love interest and mission commander Steve Kelso (despite his obvious chemistry with Schofield) and may well have been miscast. While, in contrast, genre fave Peter Boyle (as corporate villain Arnold Teague) does appear to be typecast; clearly drawing upon his role as company heavy Shepherd in Outland – in that he’s a corporate psychopath who will stoop at nothing in order to make a quick buck – even, in this case, if that quick buck risks the end of human civilization as we know it. Although how he actually hopes to profit from the planet’s demise is never made clear.

As with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Solar Crisis opens mid-story, with the threat to Earth already known and the solution underway – employing the old screenwriting adage of entering a story as late as possible in order to create momentum from the get-go. The only downside to this is that we do have to put up with an uninspired and poorly-written opening crawl to get us up to speed with what is going on. The film’s biggest flaw, though, is its fundamental structure – as the narrative constantly shifts back and forth between story strands; the Helios mission – crossed with Mike Kelso’s adventures back on Earth; robbing the primary story (the mission) of much of its tension. An issue, incidently, which also affects Christopher Nolan’s more recent Interstellar.

solar crisis - the ra

According to the information booklet included in the Intrada 2014 limited edition CD release of the film’s original soundtrack, there was a fair amount of post production reshuffling of scenes and last minute re-shoots which may well account for this structural choppiness. Perhaps this less than finessed re-structuring is one reason why Sarafian ultimately removed his name from the credits. Despite this, there are still many things to enjoy in Solar Crisis. One of the more original and amusing aspects of the film – which admittedly serves no real purpose in forwarding the narrative; and only really exists to add color to the world being created; is the automated ‘Robotrucks’ barreling along the highway, bellowing like ED 209 when confronted with obstructions, “You are in violation! Clear the highway!”

solar crisis robotruck

As one would expect from a movie in the 50 million dollar range (still a substantial amount of cash back in 1990) – Solar Crisis is visually quite striking – thanks in large part to Russell Carpenter’s cinematography. Only his third feature as DOP (having previously shot Critters II and Cameron’s Closet) – Carpenter would later go on to shoot True Lies and Titanic for James Cameron (the latter earning him an Oscar in 1997). And celebrated futurist and film designer Syd Mead (Blade Runner, 2010: The Year We Make Contact) is credited with designing the spherical spaceship Helios (which bares more than a passing resemblance to one of his rejected designs for the Sulaco in Aliens) – as well as Skytown. It’s just a shame that, due to an unshakeable release date, there were less than twelve weeks following principal photography set aside for post production; the result being that many of the visual effects shots appear rushed and well below the usual standard of Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios effects facility (Big Trouble in Little China, 2010: The Year We Make Contact). While the miniature work is top-notch, as one would expect; the shoddy compositing of shots leaves a lot to be desired.

Likewise, the rushed post production period and continual changes also affected the score. Apparently much of Maurice Jarre’s music was jettisoned during reshuffling     in post with synth exponent and frequent Jarre collaborator Michael Boddicker (Buckaroo Banzai) brought in to re-score several cues for restructured sequences. For most of the film’s running time, the score is so low in the mix as to be virtually non-existent – only really becoming apparent during the finale’s effectively suspenseful countdown sequence and over the end credits – where it reveals       itself to be oddlly reminiscent of the work of the late great Basil Poledouris.

While nowhere near as viscerally intense as Sunshine, nor as amusing as Dark Star, Solar Crisis is a fascinating curiosity piece nonetheless and one which, although it never quite achieves its potential as great sci-fi, is still an entertaining watch.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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2 Comments
  1. Twelve weeks post-production? Sounds like a Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the offing right there. Its amazing that someone could sink $50 million into a project like this and then crucify it by handicapping it with an impossible release date. Its like they were deliberately flushing it down the toilet. Good old Hollywood. As an aside, the similarly-titled Supernova was a similarly plagued production, just to prove that Hollywood never learns.

    (I did see some of this once, it was so poor I couldn’t get through it all, but learning about all the background stuff it sort of makes sense now.)

    • gregory moss permalink

      In this case, as far as I can tell, it was the Japanese backers who set the release date in stone. There’s a certain irony in the fact that although they have an undeniably rich film history, the Japanese admittedly lacked practical experience in producing large-scale effects-heavy sci-fi movies (which is why they sought out American technicians who possessed this expertise) – and it was essentially this lack of understanding of how much time and effort would be involved in producing the VFX which led to the ridiculously short post production period.

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