Solar Crisis: unearthing a forgotten moment in 90s sci-fi

It was expensive, and its cast included Jack Palance and Charlton Heston. So what was 1990’s Solar Crisis like, and why did it sink without trace…?

Home Alone. Total Recall. Die Hard 2. Dances With Wolves. If you’re old enough to remember the year 1990, then you may also remember that these movies were among its biggest hits. 1990 was also the year of movies such as Edward Scissorhands, Tremors and Goodfellas – movies that didn’t make it into the top 10 list of successes, but are still fondly remembered and enthusiastically discussed.

By contrast, who remembers Solar Crisis? Hardly anyone is the likely answer. What’s strange about the film’s anonymity is that, although its title generic title suggests a straight-to-video B-movie, it was anything but. In fact, with a budget of around $55 million, it wasn’t all that far behind Die Hard 2 ($70 million) and Total Recall ($65 million), the two most expensive movies released that year.

What’s more, Solar Crisis’ cast was peppered with familiar names, including Peter Boyle, Tim Matheson, Michael Berryman, Jack Palance and, most notably, Charlton Heston. Its director was Richard C Sarafian who was responsible for 1971’s cult road movie Vanishing Point (cited by Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino as both a favourite and an inspiration). The legendary Syd Mead is credited as production designer, while its producer was Richard Edlund, who’d worked with John Dykstra at ILM on the original Star Wars movies, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Poltergeist. Its cinematographer was Russell Carpenter, who later won an Oscar for his work on Titanic. Its music was composed by Maurice Jarre, who won Oscars for Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage To India. And so on.

With a pedigree like that, it’s somewhat perplexing that Solar Crisis is such a little-known film. So why did a project with all those names behind it, and all that money, fail to become anything more than a brief footnote in cinematic history?

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That Solar Crisis’ direction is credited to one Alan Smithee rather than Richard C Sarafian is the first sign of an unhappy production. From the late 60s to the late 90s, Alan Smithee was a pseudonym used by any director who’d chosen to disown a movie, meaning that Solar Crisis joins the small but unhappy club which also includes Hellraiser: Bloodline and The Shrimp On The Barbie.

Adapted from Takeshi Kawata’s novel of the same name, Solar Crisis sees a future society living under the tyranny of the sun. Gigantic solar flares are whipping through space, heating up the Earth and causing untold chaos: famine, riots, blistered noses. Worse still, a “colossal mega-flare” is imminent, and as a narrator warns us as the movie opens, “The cremation of the planet is at hand.”

Fortunately, science has an answer. An international team of astronauts is assembled, which includes Captain Kelso (Tim Matheson), British scientist Alex Noffe (Annabel Schofield) and Dr Minami (Tetsuya Bessho). They’re sent off in the good ship Helios to drop an anti-matter bomb on our nearest star, which will extinguish the flares and save the planet.

If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because it’s extremely similar to Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi, Sunshine. That, too, saw an international team of scientists head into space to fling a bomb into the sun, though the tone of Sunshine is rather more scientific and Solaris-inspired than Solar Crisis, which, if anything, has more in common with Michael Bay’s killer asteroid flick, Armageddon.

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Solar Crisis could be described as a kind of missing link between the cult classic Dark Star and such recent outer space SF fare as Event Horizon, Armageddon and Sunshine, in fact. In a plot point which may have sounded more convincing on paper than it does in motion, Solar Crisis features a sentient bomb, just like Dark Star’s Bomb #20.

In Dark Star, this idea worked beautifully, because it was a playful, painfully funny twist on 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL – the tense and sublimely written scene in which Lt Doolittle engages in a philosophical discussion with the bomb in an attempt to convince it not to detonate itself is a true classic of sci-fi.

In Solar Crisis, the reason for having a sentient bomb (called Freddy) is never addressed. And whose idea was it to give the bomb the voice of Paul Williams, the songwriter of We’ve Only Just Begun and star of Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise?

Unfortunately, Freddy’s the least of Solar Crisis’ problems. What sounds like a brisk adventure plot is bogged down with long scenes of exposition (much of it unnecessary), iffy dialogue and suspect acting. Worse still, the potentially watchable drama aboard the Helios is intercut with a baffling and tedious array of implausible dramas back on Earth.

Captain Kelso doesn’t get on with his dad, who’s played by an underused Heston, or his young son, Mike (Corin Nemec, who would later appear in several episodes of Stargate SG-1, among other things). Jack Palance shows up as an eccentric desert hermit with even less to do than Heston – presumably, they were chosen simply because their names looked good on the poster. (On the subject of Palance, eagle-eyed viewers may notice a Spinner vehicle from Blade Runner make a cameo appearance in one of the actor’s scenes.)

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Then there’s another batty sub-plot, this time involving Peter Boyle’s scheming corporate villain, Teague, who plans to sabotage the Helios mission for his own gains. His reasoning is that, if the Earth is toasted by the mega-flare, his company will profit – though how he or his cronies will be able to spend those profits once the planet’s turned to glass and they’re all dead isn’t clear.

On a more positive note, the special effects are quite good for a movie of its vintage, and it’s at least possible to see some of Mead’s input, and where all that money went. But all the decent model effects in the world can’t save a movie this incoherent, which can’t decide whether to be serious or set off for the galaxy of camp. Its freak-out conclusion, which sees Alex head into the sun to heroically divert disaster, attempts to ape the psychedelic stargate sequence of 2001, but looks more like an explosion in a lava lamp factory.

Had Solar Crisis given in entirely to camp excess, it could have been enormous fun – after all, it has all the trappings of a 90s sci-fi cheese fest, including gratuitous nude scenes from Annabel Schofield, whose character is mysteriously reprogrammed with some sort of magic eye spray, and there’s also some ripe dialogue such as, “While the captain’s storming the gates of heaven, we’re heading straight to hell,” and “All you want to do is chew face.”

What a shame, then, that Solar Crisis feels so interminably long (its duration is actually about 110 minutes – quite lean by blockbuster standards) and its story so rambling and dreary. Offering up little more than a series of overacting heads for much of its running time, Solar Crisis is difficult to recommend even as an ironically enjoyable B-movie.

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An American and Japanese co-production, Solar Crisis appears to have struggled to find proper distribution in the US, and was sneaked, in edited form, into cinemas by the relatively small Trimark Pictures in 1992. According to a contemporary review in TV Guide, Solar Crisis would, if it had been a hit, have had an amusement park built around its premise. Unsurprisingly, this never happened.

Proper box office figures are nowhere to be found, but, based on the evidence available, it’s fair to suggest that it probably didn’t make its hefty budget back. And with that, the movie was quickly consigned to the back of cinema history’s popcorn-strewn sofa.

It sometimes happens that, when trawling through the archives of forgotten movies, you’ll stumble upon a hidden gem. That’s not really the case with Solar Crisis, whose pedigree and premise promises so much more than it delivers.

The best way to enjoy Solar Crisis, perhaps, is by simply watching its trailer, which serves as an amusing tour of the film’s hammy brand of acting and unintentionally amusing moments…

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