Twelve Things about Soldier
12. Did you know what a good actor Kurt Russell is? I hadn't. I mean, I knew he could be funny because of Tango and Cash, and I had vague memories of him as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, but until I saw Soldier last weekend, I hadn't known that he could create a whole character--a poignant, utterly sympathetic character--using mostly his face. Very impressive.
11. One reason he has to rely on his expressions so much is that his character, Sergeant Todd, isn't given much dialogue. When he does have to speak, he is limited to curt one-liners.
And I'd make a bad pun about "Kurt one-liners," but that isn't what Russell is about. You probably can't quote Soldier the way you can quote even lesser-known Arnold Schwarzenegger movies ("You should not drink and bake," anyone?), because what these two actors do with dialogue is completely different. Schwarzenegger figured out early on that audiences liked repeating his lines in order to mimic his accent (All together now: "GET TO THE CHOPPER!"), so he didn't mind branding himself that way for most of the 80s. Imagine what he would have done with the two Soldier one-liners I can recall off the top of my head: "Fear and discipline" and "Soldiers deserve soldiers." He would have cemented them in pop culture history . . . and they wouldn't have been half as good.
10. "Fear and discipline" is from the scene when another character asks Todd what it is like to be a soldier. And she honestly wonders because she can never be one, too. In this universe, it is not something you can simply enlist to do and receive training for, but something you are selected for at birth . . . and maybe even bred for beforehand.
9. The first scenes are right out of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. First we see military officers examining babies wrapped in blue blankets, tagging the ones they approve of as "A1" ("A" for Alpha?) . . . then we see five-year-old boys being made to watch as animals rip each other apart, while a gentle female voice tells them, "A soldier shows no mercy . . . mercy is weakness . . . weakness is death" . . . and we observe how literally that maxim is taken when one twelve-year-old boy who can't keep up with the rest of his class during a run is executed on the spot.
It's not just training, but also indoctrination and conditioning--and when we finally see them in action, shooting civilians who are being used as human shields . . . You know, I'm willing to bet that we all have the same reaction: shocked that they really did go that far, but also still very sympathetic to them. We knew them from infancy, after all. And they had such sweet faces as little boys.
8. But this just begs the question of whether an alternative opening, in which we follow their rivals, the "very much improved" soldiers, from infancy to adulthood, would have made us side with them instead. The introduction of the "new batch" makes us do a lot of code breaking, which I'm not too crazy about.
The new soldiers are described using very functional, impersonal language: their DNA has been recombined and manipulated; they themselves are manufactured. Apparently, Latin-derived words are as off-putting in the future as they were in the Middle Ages, when all you needed to do to make a priest figure in a morality play unsympathetic was make him say "communicate" instead of "talk." =P
Those black singlets and shaved heads don't help, either. Nor does Jason Scott Lee's own attempt to act with his face, which is the silent version of chewing scenery. Were they ever even children?
In contrast, the captain's defense of the veteran soldiers he has been commanding for years is downright colloquial. These veterans may be hardened killers who do not balk at shooting children, but they still have fluffy-looking hair and are wearing clothes in soft earth tones. With sleeves. You can always tell the good guys from the bad guys by looking at the sleeves.
7. Sarcasm aside, we would register a difference between killers who are merely trained from birth and killers who are engineered from conception. But I don't like the way the latter are set up as two-dimensional villains while the former are excused for actions that would stamp them as evil in other movies. Basically, we're being told what to believe and what to feel with the same imagery used in "Us vs. Them" war propaganda, and I'm not impressed.
6. What does impress me very much, however, is the abortion imagery. I never expected that this movie would go there. But yes, the scene in which Todd, who has been presumed dead, regains full consciousness and has to claw for his life before being dumped from a hatch onto an alien world, is reminiscent of an unwanted baby being forced from his mother's womb and tossed out with the garbage.
It's not right when the military does it to Todd because he has become "obsolete" and it's not right when we do it to our unborn children because of their own "bad timing" in our lives.
5. So it really does fit to have a mother figure to help him to heal, though that doesn't make Connie Nielsen's character Sandra any less of a cliche. But I guess there's no skirting that movie rule that every injured hero must be nursed back to health by a beautiful woman.
Watch the face!!!
Our leading lady is not (Deo gratias!) a single mother, but story conventions being what they are, we can safely bet, the second we see her, that her kind, wonderful husband, whom she is still quite in love with, will not have an enviable character arc.
4. Sadly, the film's truly evocative moments get to unfold against some of the silliest sets I've ever seen. The futuristic military complex, from nursery to barracks, is as generic as can be; while the lost colony is a conceptual mess.
This is even more of a pity when you remember that the settings are an organic part of the story. The military complex is a place where human beings are treated like machines and end up acting like machines. Meanwhile, the lost colony's members struggle to keep civilisation and dignity alive on a planet which is primarily used for waste disposal. (You know--a slum.) Both settings have great potential to dehumanise people, unless the people actively push back. At least they do in theory; but on screen, the former looks like it could be any 80s B-movie (although Soldier is a 90s blockbuster!) and the latter is . . . whimsical. =S
3. At least we don't get the whimsy of "Ewoks ex machina"! When the "improved" soldiers come to attack the colony and Todd gets ready to defend them on his own, Sandra tells him that the colonists are not cowards and are willing to fight if he organises them. He disagrees, saying, "Soldiers deserve soldiers, sir." And the subsequent action has more in common with Rambo than with Return of the Jedi!
But I remain uneasy that the "bad" soldiers still seem like Stormtroopers--that is, like interchangeable war cogs who aren't really human. When Todd takes them down, he might as well be doing target practice on dummies. Only his main nemesis has anything close to a personality, and even that is doubtful. Given the movie's message that even soldiers can have a place in a peace-loving community--that, in fact, there may be roles in a community that only soldiers can fill--the engineered villains are an incredibly weak link. In the end, we get no definite answer about which soldiers we can live with and which soldiers we must kill.
2. What I would have liked to see more of is the rest of this future civilisation, which the two outlying groups of highly-specialised soldiers and displaced colonists tell me nothing about.
In a way, the answer is already part of the film, in the reference to Tannhauser Gate. And if that's not strong enough for canon, screenwriter David Webb Peoples has described Soldier as a "side-quel" to Bladerunner. But partly because I've never liked Bladerunner, I wish that Soldier were more self-contained.
1. Soldier may not have done too well at the box office, but it holds up amazingly well fifteen years later. Pair it with Die Hard for a Christmas-themed Action double feature!
Image Source: Soldier poster