Wednesday, July 8, 2015

SOLDIER (1998)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

SOLDIER, in which director Paul W.S. Anderson adapted a 15-year-old script by David Webb Peoples, was a box-office failure. For whatever reason, this was the last movie to be filmed from a script by Peoples, famous for genre favorites like BLADE RUNNER and TWELVE MONKEYS, as well as a few cult favorites like 1989's THE BLOOD OF HEROES. As for Anderson, he found success with the franchises DEATH RACE and RESIDENT EVIL, which are diverting action-serials, if not quite as complex as SOLDIER.

Many SF-takes on the world of the professional soldier are as one-sided as, well, a one-sided battle. Heinlein's novel STARSHIP TROOPERS is an uncomplicated celebration of the military "grunt," while the Paul Verhoeven quasi-adaptation of the book simply inverts the novel's pro-military stance into one of distance irony. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER takes another tack, pitting a "good soldier" against a "bad soldier." The Anderson-Peoples script, in contrast, doesn't resort to such simplifications.

The film begins in 1996, as viewpoint character/ hero Sergeant Todd grows to manhood, under the U.S. government's rigorous training. He and several other children become the government's foremost "shock troops," both on Earth and on those worlds where Earth has extended its influence. (SOLDIER spends no time at all on establishing how Earth-people colonized space: all we know is that space-travel exists and some worlds have people on them.) The program that produces Todd and his comrades has been designed to absolutely suppress the soldier's emotions to make them into pure fighting-machines. In this emotionless state, Todd has no remorse for killing innocents to achieve the military's goals.

Unfortunately, in the world of SOLDIER the military is the haven of both dedicated warriors and conscienceless career-pushers. "Chicken colonel" Mekum wants the program he oversees-- one devoted to bio-engineered soldiers-- to displace that of Todd's group. To give an illustration of the superiority of the enhanced types, Mekum has his prize soldier Caine face Todd in a series of military challenges. The last of these, direct combat, ends with Caine losing an eye while Todd apparently loses his life. To keep Todd's death on the down-low, Mekum has his body dumped into an automated space-craft, whose sole purpose is to dump Earth's trash on a neighboring planet.

Todd survives being dumped on the trash-world, but he's not alone. Years ago, a ship full of colonists crash-landed upon the world, and the survivors have been forced to make the garbage-planet their home. The colonists find it hard to get used to the emotionless Todd, who rarely speaks, though one family-- a husband, wife, and their young son-- choose to take Todd in for a while. The basic situation is clearly lifted from George Stevens' western film SHANE, but the script manages to introduce some new wrinkles-- such as the young boy, who resembles Todd in that he too has been traumatized so that he rarely speaks.

Though Colonel Mekum has no idea that Todd has survived or that anyone lives on the trash-world, he like the classic guilty criminal returns to the scene of his crime. He orders his new bio-engineered soldiers to travel to the refuse-world and begin training exercises, with the stipulation that they are to treat any individuals they meet as enemy combatants. Thus Todd gets a second chance to take out the "new breed" that displaced him and his fellows-- including the one-eyed Caine-- and to avenge himself on Mekum while seeking to protect his new "family."

Though the plot-action is simple, the interplay of the military world and the civilian world is not. It might have been easy for the script to dump upon the military, given that Mekum is emblematic of careerism at its worst, and as noted before, Todd himself is trained to kill indiscriminately in defense of his orders-- just like the soldier-in-training whom he proceeds to pick off during the film's climax. Yet the civilian colonists are also capable of making misjudgments based in fear; prior to the arrival of the trainees, they exile Todd from their company because they find him off-putting. Compared to their perpetual uncertainty, the charisma of the skilled warrior-- even when he acts in defense of civilians-- seems a thing of fascinating sublimity. Yet, the film's conclusion endorses a rapprochement, in which Todd is able to liberate the colonists and find a place with them, rather than resuming his life as a programmed killer. The script implies that the two societies, that of warrior and civilian, should be interdependent, and that one has no meaning without the other.

Kurt Russell has the most demanding role, in that he can only suggest nascent stirrings of emotion through slight, subtle movements and gestures. His big end-fight with Caine is a winner as well, and is all the more memorable given that Russell suffered a broken ankle during the movie's production.

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