Movie trivia: what were the most expensive films produced in 1990? As BuzzFeed might put it: the answer may surprise you. 1st: Die Hard 2 ($70 million), 2nd: Total Recall ($65 million), 3rd: Dick Tracey? Back To The Future 3? The Hunt For Red October? Nope. Solar Crisis ($55 million).
And yet I am going to take a punt and suggest that you have never even heard of Solar Crisis, much less seen it. It certainly wasn't one of the top grossing films of 1990. In fact, outside Japan (it was a Japanese-US co-production based on a Japanese novel), it seems to have had a very limited cinematic release. But $55 million is a lot of money to splurge on a straight-to-video B-movie. So was it some kind of mafia money laundering scheme? Well, not on the face of it - it stars Charlton Heston (yes, that one), Jack Palance, Tim Matheson (the vice president in The West Wing), and Peter Boyle (the dispacher in Taxi Driver, the monster in Young Frankenstein, and Ray's dad in Everybody Loves Raymond), and was directed by Richard Sarafian, who in his younger days had made cult road movie Vanishing Point. A lot of special effects money also seems to have been thrown at the film, although by today's standards it still looks pretty hokey. However, the fact that Richard Sarafian asked to be credited as 'Alan Smithee' hints that the film may have had a... shall we say 'troubled' production history.
Like you, I had never heard of Solar Crisis, but I came across it on top of a pile of DVDs at my parents' house, and was intrigued at the idea of a 1990 SF film starring Charlton Heston that I had never heard of. Could it be another overlooked cult movie like the 1980 SF B-movie Saturn 3 (Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, Farrah Fawcett and a killer robot - what's not to like)? So I borrowed it and - last night - watched it.
The other thing that had intrigued me was the premise - Earth is facing destruction at the hands of a monstrous solar flare. To divert it harmlessly away from Earth, a crew of astronauts must pilot a massive bomb into the heart of the sun. Sound familiar? That's because it's - give or take - the premise of Danny Boyle's 2007 SF film Sunshine. The idea that it had been done 17 years earlier with Chuck 'From My Cold Dead Hands' Heston sounded amazing. However, the similarities pretty much end there, and it turns out that there's a good reason you've not seen this movie. It is... well, not exactly terrible, just not terribly good.
So let's start with the plot - it's all over the place. The main 'carry the bomb to the sun' plot plays second fiddle to confusing shenanigans back on Earth. Tim Matheson, captain of the Helios - the ship with the bomb - has unresolved dad issues both with his son - who absconds from military academy - and his dad, the Admiral (Chuck Heston). Meanwhile religious corporate baddie Peter Boyle reckons that the solar flare won't happen, and therefore (?) for no particular reason tries to sabotage the mission, by employing a hitman who looks like Billy Idol, who botches the assassination of a key henchman who then goes on the lam. Henchman, military cadet, corporate goons and military rescue squad all collide in some Mad Max-style badlands area where crazy old man Jack Palance turns out to be ex military and saves said cadet. Oh, did I mention the sexy cyborg (Annabel Schofield, apparently channelling Liz Hurley) who gets reprogrammed by Billy Idol to sabotage the Helios...? The confusing plot unfortunately rubs shoulders with risible dialogue (even for an 80s - or nearly 80s - SF movie), a smart alec talking bomb that seems to have escaped from Dark Star, and gratuitous female nudity (Annabel even gets that staple of 80s movies - a random shower scene). Jack Palance isn't really trying, Charlton Heston does gravitas very well but doesn't get enough screen time, and the whole thing ends in a strange 2001-style 'Stargate' sequence as the sexy cyborg ovecomes her reprogramming and sets the controls for the heart of the sun.
As SF turkeys go, though, this one is definitely M&S hand-reared free range turkey, and you're welcome to borrow the DVD.
I watched it as a double bill with the aforementioned Sunshine, just for comparison. The truth is, though, there just is no comparison. Danny Boyle directs with a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of everything, the acting is fine, and the plot is pretty tight and concentrates quite rightly on the whole 'getting the bomb to the sun' thing. I hadn't enjoyed Sunshine very much when I first watched it, and this was the first time I had seen it in several years, but the plot actually made much more sense the second time around, aside from the central conceit, which doesn't make sense in physics terms (even a fission bomb 'the size of Manhattan' would be a mere drop in the ocean on something the scale of the sun). Still, that bothered me less this time and I enjoyed the atmospherics, and the way staring into the sun drove people to madness. I actually ended up wishing more could have been made of that, especially what had happened to the previous Icarus mission - something of an Event Horizon-type thing as they put the pieces together (but with less religious mumbo jumbo). But the main distraction for me was Cillian Murphy, whose character looked too much like Professor Brian Cox, and I kept on expecting him to break into a soft Lancashire accent and big cheesy grin, and have a large, exciteable Irishman appear alongside him to crack a few jokes. But yes, I think I can see what Mark Kermode likes about Sunshine now.