Movie: Soldier (1998)

I never understood how Starship Troopers is supposed to be an anti-fascist film.  The whole thing seems pretty rah rah rah USA USA USA to me.  Maybe the message is clearer in Heinlein’s original novel, but I haven’t read it.

1998’s Soldier came out only a year later and I feel it had a similar message, yet communicates it more successfully.  Here is a movie that wears on its camouflaged sleeve a distrust of the military and what it will do to maintain its power.

It begins with newborns being selected for a military program which will groom them into merciless, unquestioning killing machines.  What criteria do the military leaders use to pick which infants are selected for the program.  The first one chosen is crying.  Why select that one?  Is the thinking like, “What are you crying about you big baby?  Huh?  I’ll give you something to cry about.  Sculpt you into an uncaring killing machine.”

We see the child who will grow up to be Kurt Russell at different stages of his development.  As a young child, he is expressionless as he and his peers watch a fight between three Dobermans and a wild boar.  Not sure what lesson is supposed to be taken away from that.  

A couple of years later, he’s leading a line of boys on a run through the countryside.  One boy can’t keep up with the pack, and we hear a gunshot as he is permanently removed from the program.  I was hoping this was turning into the movie of Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk I’ve always wanted, but no.

Skipping forward a couple more years, the group is practicing at a target range where figures of civilians and enemy combatants move around.  In a moment of foreshadowing, Russell deliberates fires through a civilian repeatedly in order to obliterate the enemy behind her.

Another jump to many, many years later, and Russell is a veteran of the numerous wars tattooed on his right arm.  As if he and his ilk aren’t bad enough, they are about to be replaced by a new kind of soldier, one that is even more powerful and cruel.  One of these new killing machines will lose an eye when challenged to fight Russell, and yet this guy doesn’t…uh, blink an eye.

The corpses of the outdated soldiers are literally discarded in the trash.  Thank God we treat our veterans with so much respect and compassion in real life!  *cough*  What Russell’s superiors fail to realize is he isn’t dead yet, and so he looks for a way to survive after being dumped on a planet that is entirely one garbage dump.  Isn’t it sad that, if we had access to another planet, you just know we would do something like this?

Russell will discover a colony of survivors, people who seemingly came here in order to drop out of the kind of society that would approve of a military that does the things it does here.  These are basically hippies and, needless to say, Russell may have a bit of trouble adjusting to their ways.

Still, it is fascinating watching him try to acclimate.  In one scene, he is eating with others, except he literally eats like a machine.  He actually lifts the spoon to his mouth in a perfect rhythm.  In this scene, Russell actually says his first line of dialogue—almost a half-hour into the runtime.  Even for a guy who starred in Escape from New York, this is a man of astonishingly few words.  And, once he starts talking, he feels compelled to call everybody “Sir”, which made me wonder if each person he talks to might start thinking they are Peppermint Patty from Peanuts.

The closest he comes to befriending others is the family of Sean Pertwee, Connie Nielsen and their son.  There is another guy who keeps trying to befriend him (Michael Chiklis), especially after an extremely tense scene where Russell saves him from flying into a thresher’s blades that are spinning like mad from gale-force winds.  The guy tries to thank Russell by giving him a scarf he’s made, but he makes the mistake of startling the ex-soldier who then tries to kill him.  Russell’s reaction may seem extreme but…I don’t know, I think it all depends on the quality of the scarf.  Homicide may be justified if it is one of those excessively long and thin hipster scarves that are useless as defense from the cold.

Exiled from the community, Russell sets up his own home in the debris.  I like how this world feels fully realized even if we don’t see much of it.  It is like a hybrid of the prison planet from Alien 3 and Crematoria from The Chronicles of Riddick.  Unfortunately, the set design is augmented by some seriously dodgy CGI, though I tried to overlook this.

The community will need Russell’s help when the new troops arrive on the planet as a training exercise.  In keeping with the film’s criticism of the military-industrial complex, those who command the soldiers regard civilian casualties as collateral damage.  “What if we encounter refugees?”  “Then we will classify them as hostiles.” 

The resulting attack on the colonists isn’t just an unfair fight—the soldiers never even leave their intergalactic Humvees.  These are nothing but space bullies, using a rocket to take out an unarmed civilian who has stepped forward only to initiate a conversation.

The third act gets a bit weird as Russell methodically dispatches each of the new super-soldiers.  The vibes changes to that of a slasher film, where Russell is basically the Jason Voorhees here.  Even weirder, he’s killing American soldiers, so rooting for him started feeling really awkward.

Worst of all is this culminates in the type of one-on-one, “this time it’s personal” kind of fist-fight where it doesn’t seem like either man is overly intent on killing the other.  I refuse to believe such perfect killers as we have seen up until this point would suddenly start telegraphing their moves.

Soldier can be ham-fisted, but its heart is in the right place. That this movie is helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the director who gave us such garbage as the Resident Evil series and Alien vs. Predator, makes it all the more remarkable it has any heart at all.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring Kurt Russell, Connie Nielsen

Watched on Warner Bros. blu-ray