18 December 2013

+JMJ+

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.


Only a few days old and already saying so much with his face!

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.

". . . They're practically manufactured using DNA profiles . . ."

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?

". . . My daddy was in maintenance, and he had a saying . . . If it ain't broke, don't fix it . . ."

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.

I mean, seriously . . .

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

25 comments:

Bob Wallace said...

Golly gee, what made you want to watch this movie?

Watching it is when I realized Russell was more versatile than I thought.

Paul Stilwell said...

If this was a just world, Kurt Russell would have received two oscars by now.

I haven't watched this film but reading your review makes me want to watch it. I very much agree about his acting with/through his face though. It's very much there in Tombstone.

Anyways, I could tell the settings in Soldier would suck just by that blankie that the mother's child is sitting on in that clip you posted. That thing is a set piece horror.

Brandon said...

I think you're right that interchangeability is a big issue here on the replacement side -- it's noteworthy that the one new and improved soldier for whom we do get something of a personality is the one who is made more than just a piece on the board by the loss of his eye -- it gives him a slight trace of humanity beyond what we get in any of the others. The mind doesn't just slide off him, or at least not so much as the rest.

I'm glad to find someone else liking how Russell handles his role. It's the sort of role most actors would play woodenly, because it's that sort of character -- but to take those limitations and convey something very human with them was some excellent acting.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Bob -- Well, someone has been recommending it for some time . . .

Did you see this when it was in cinemas? Do you remember why it was panned rather than praised at the time?

Stilwell -- And at least a Best Actor nomination for Soldier! Watching this made me want to kick the director, Paul Anderson. =( What had come from the original script (and was good) and what had come from him (and was not so good) were so obviously different. Russell's performance manages to rise above Anderson's vision, but the rest of the movie flounders.

Brandon -- I guess they had to give Todd a special nemesis because of conventions and so that the final face-off would be more personal. But I actually think that it wasn't personal for Todd ("Oh, you again? Don't take this the wrong way, but if you keep going after my new family, I'm going to kill you."), while it did come across as an ego thing for Caine ("You're the jerk who ripped up my eye!"). On a scale whose fixed points points are Kyle Reese vs. the T-800 and any Jean-Claude van Damme character vs. whoever, Todd vs. Caine would fall closer to the latter.

Bob Wallace said...

I missed it in the theaters. I rented the movie.

Bob Wallace said...

I forgot - it's clear he's a replicant. There are allusions to "Blade Runner" in the movie, such as the Battle at Tannhauser Gate.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

And now I see I have to deal with that awful Bladerunner movie again if I want to appreciate Soldier. =P

One reason I don't like the former very much is that it wasn't clear about what replicants are. (The novel was no help. If I remember correctly, an andy has some mechanical components, but the replicants don't seem to.) So what are they? Androids, cloned humans, synthetic organisms that appear human but are not biologically human . . . ? Does anyone know?

Bob Wallace said...

Blade Runner was a great movie.

Replicants are artificial humans with no mechanical parts. However, they have animal DNA, which is just as clear can be be. Think about it....turtle (guy looks like a turtle), snake, raccoon, wolf...even Deckard was part fish, probably shark.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

If they're artificial humans, does that mean they're not created with a sperm cell and an egg cell? I think it's important for this to be clear because: a) if they were grown from sex cells, then they are still totally human, no matter what else was done to their DNA; and b) if they were built from completely different materials, then they aren't human, though they should be treated humanely.

I'm open to watching Bladerunner again, especially since I've only seen the Director's Cut, thanks to a former friend who was completely obsessed with it. Come to think of it, that's likely the main reason I didn't like the movie. Her interpretation of its supposed message was awful!

Off to polish my glass house now . . . ;-)

Belfry Bat said...

What I was going to say is... the theatre version is actually less fun than the director's cut because they didn't let Harison Ford stop talking. Whoever "they" were. That's the only difference I remember, but there may have been others --- but the effect is that the theatre is a completely different genre of film than the director's.

I could share some thoughts about why it's a frustrating story, or I can wait for another post.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

You might as well write about it here. Given my contrarian streak, I could watch Bladerunner and then blog about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? . . . or blog about it elsewhere and never mention it. =P

Bob Wallace said...

Theater version: happy ending. Director's cut: Deckard is a replicant (shown when Gaff put the unicorn on the floor, showing he knows about Deckard's dream) which means Deckard and Rachel have only a year or so left.And her, probably more than him, since she's younger.

Bob Wallace said...

Replicants are human, but apparently grown in tanks (think Space: Above and Beyond). They're also human, since Batty at the end releases a white dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, meaning Batty has a soul.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Reading your answers to my questions make me think that my former friend who adored the Director's Cut did nothing but misrepresent it to me. =P She once, in the middle of selling it to me as The Best Movie Ever, started twirling (literally!) with an ecstatic look on her face and cried out, "Roy Batty! Is he Jesus or is he Satan?!?!"

Anyway, you're making more sense. LOL!

Bob Wallace said...

Batty has wolf DNA - that he why he howls at the end. And with the nail he sticks through his palm - and after he saves Deckard from certain death - who do you think he represents?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I really don't remember much about the movie itself.

I do recall my former friend babbling through it like a second soundtrack. =P (She didn't like Deckard's voice over in the theatrical release, but she simply substituted it for one of her own when she showed me the Director's Cut. LOL! And I think she would have been happy to have believed Batty was Satan.)

NoelCT said...

I think what sets the "hero" soldiers apart from the "villain" soldiers is camaraderie. While the entire lives of the "heroes" have been this hellish program of constant control meant to strip away their humanity, they still had that one little strand left due to having lived it together, from birth to their final mission, and when the cards finally came down, they chose to stand by one another instead of commanders who have already abandoned them. It's a thin hair of humanity, but it's still something they can build upon.

The "villain" soldiers, on the other hand, don't even have that. The "heroes" have been raised to strip them of humanity, the "villains" were intentionally created to lack it to begin with. If we do go with the implication that they're Replicants, they never even had a childhood to share, as the entire plot of Blade Runner is based around the idea Replicants are born "adults" and have very limited life spans. So this group never even had a chance to forge the tiny bond which held Kurt and his brothers together.

That said, the ultimate point of Blade Runner was that even one of these organic automatons, even while himself being guilty of atrocities, can reach a point of compassion in the limited time he has, and I think the Jason Scott Lee character lacks a final moment along similar lines. Maybe not one of realization, like Roy had, but one of questioning. The "machine" built to follow orders finally has doubt. That would have been great, to not have Kurt kill him, but leave him asking "Why?" as he just kneels in the rain.

Granted, there is that bomb that goes off. :)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

There is something very humanising about the "good" soldiers having been children once. I really think that's the main difference. And I hadn't known that Replicants start as adults--which actually addresses my question in #8. The "bad" soldiers will never be properly sympathetic to us, and that seems a little unfair.

Now please correct me if I have the wrong impression, but you seem to be contradicting Bob. I'm sure it's clear to everyone, the Blade Runner connection having been established, that the "bad" soldiers are indeed Replicants; but Bob says that Todd and the "good" soldiers are, too, which is something I didn't think is clear in the film, even before I knew the extra details you've just shared.

I watched the climax again after reading your comment and think that we see some signs of bewilderment and sadness from Caine. I'm not sure how to interpret them, though, because his greatest source of confusion at that point is that Todd keeps getting up. At the very end of their fight, he seems to know that he is going to die and doesn't want to . . . and we also see that Todd doesn't really want to kill him . . . but they both also look as if they understand that it must be done, and it's nothing personal.

One thing I ultimately edited from this review is my impression that the director and the screenwriter weren't really on the same page. (I touch a little on that in #4.) I can see the characterisation of the "bad" soldiers and the confusing character arc of Caine as more evidence that the original idea and the director's vision had trouble finding common ground.

NoelCT said...

No, the "good" soldiers are as far as the program got with humans before swapping over to artificially created beings. As for other speculation, the idea of Dekkard and others in Blade Runner also being Replicants was never the actual case, not even in Scott's director's cut. That was a fan theory he's only latched onto and run with in recent years, but his unicorn fantasy is to symbolize that Dekkard still has dreams in this worn out waste of a world, and when Gaff leaves behind the origami unicorn, it shows that he has dreams, too, and that he tracked down Rachel, but didn't kill her because he knows what she means to Dekkard and is giving the other man the chance to run away and, if even for a brief time, live a dream.

As for the climax of Soldier with Caine, I defer to your observation of the specifics as it has been a couple years since I saw it. Here's the script if you want to see how it was on the page.

If you ever want to check out something along similar lines, Peoples made his directorial debut with Salute of the Jugger (aka Blood of Heroes), a post-apocalyptic sports movie.

NoelCT said...

Oh, and one other thing about Replicants: they are assembled, not just grown whole in vats. We meet a number of people in Blade Runner who design and manufacture individuals parts of Replicants, like the old Asian man in the freezer lab surrounded by eyes. So there is more of a Frankenstein aspect to it than just them being augmented clones grown in vats. This is why they're adults from creation and are designed to shut down after only a few years of life. Roy wasn't just waiting for his gestation to finish before he was given the 4 year life limit, he was literally only 4 years old.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I really wish I already knew all these Blade Runner theories, but as I hinted above, I had the worst introduction and have stayed away since.

Maybe that last sentence should read: "the worst introduction to the movie." I'm kind of okay with the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I read before I watched anything. But I read it for uni, in the class of a lecturer who said a lot of things about it that I didn't think were supported by the text, and now I suspect they were from the movie! And maybe not even the movie, but the fandom which grew around it since its release . . . This is not loveable. =S

Thanks a lot for the link to the script! There were a lot of changes made, weren't there? I'm fascinated by the first two ways the "Soldiers deserve soldiers" line is used and wonder if they should have been left in. Mace's death is also completely different; the original script makes him more ambivalent. Then there's what happens to Sandra . . .

But I'm glad that Jimmy Pig's scarf made it into the movie. It was something else I almost mentioned in the review. =)

Belfry Bat said...

Well, in the time since having proclaimed Bladerunner frustrating (the quiet version), and the rest of it... I have even less clear an idea what I was thinking of just then. (which might mean we're getting closer to it!) At the core of my frustration is the relationship between what looks like something alive and what looks like a machine. J.F.'s "friends" act like toys, and supposedly the distinction between these vs. humans-replicant is simply one of degree (scale and sophistication), whereas the actual distinction between humans and beasts is a difference of kind: beasts are not moral agents.

So, either God really likes ensouling things (and I suppose I don't know that He doesn't), or the Bladerunner crew really want us to be sentimentalist sensualists. That's what's frustrating.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Who is J.F.? No need to answer if to do so would be to spoil the movie for someone who doesn't remember it! =P

If you're saying that you also have no idea whether or not Replicants are human, then that's quite a mark against Blade Runner!

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, I know the film wants me to think the replicants are (as good as) human, but I also know the film wants me to understand that the people in the film who think themselves human think the replicants are man-made. So, it's a tangle...

J.F. is the little "engineer" who plays chess with Dr. Tyrell; Roy and Pris stay in his house for a short while.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

What I meant was that what a film wants and what a film can actually cash in are not always the same thing. If Blade Runner wants its viewers to believe, contrary to what the characters think, that the Replicants are human, but cannot make a convincing case that they are, then we can hardly call it successful.