The perfect soldier is one without morality, one who could literally be engineered, and not just deconstructed from a human foundation. Through the magic of science-fiction, we can get both to compare: the former a thought exercise, the latter an extrapolation of the real world. In Soldier, a film written by David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner), and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (I’m Coming Back Motherfuckers), we have the competition between the old and new, with high stakes.
This is a rare example of military science-fiction in film, and unlike the other two examples, Aliens and Starship Troopers, it isn’t necessarily about combat so much as the titular aspect. Kurt Russell plays a supersoldier bred from an early age to withstand trauma by watching dogs maul sheep for hours, and he works out pretty well until the next generation of soldier makes him obsolete.
This new soldier isn’t exactly playing fair, because he is of the Replicant variety (remember: Peoples). This indeed takes place in the Blade Runner universe, a kind of ‘side-quel,’ as they say, and while it shares none of Blade Runner’s thematic tissue, it crafts its own, and with that military edge so rare in film.
Russell is dumped on a garbage planet where he discovers a colony of people. He learns — slowly, and not comprehensively — to live among them, and again it works out pretty well, until the next generation of soldier appears for wargames.
There is actual warfare depicted in the film in a montage, with a memorable “Battle of Tennhauser Gate” judiciously giving us one more sample of this world, but the big action comes about because of training, not an alien invasion or a war with the central colonies. This is a stage-left story, just like with Blade Runner, and its small scale reflects its values.
Russell declares that he’s “gonna kill ‘em all, sir,” and takes the fight against his superior soldier, having now what he didn’t when before he dueled the Dragon Bruce Lee Story — humanity. In combat, humanity might just mean trickery and being smart, so we might parallel this to the discussion about drones vs. human involvement on the battlefield.
And that’s where we might swerve into problematic territory. Asserting that the Kurt Russell-type of soldier is actually better than the genetically engineered one solves very little, because it’s just affirming that there’s nothing really wrong with how we conduct things here on Earth.
I think the movie is more saying that there is a human element in all of us that is good and can’t be destroyed. It’s revealed when society reclaims a soldier, and when that soldier is compared to one without that human element. In Jason Scott Lee, it was prevented from taking shape, and this is his downfall.
Like Pitch Black, this is an uncomplicated film, but a very satisfying one. Although we criticize Paul W.S. Anderson for movies like AVP and Resident Evil 2-5, it’s always because of the writing. As a director, his visual style is colorful and frenetic, and the final fight scene is magnetic. A departure from the 80s action this movie could potentially be compared to, the fight scene is without dialogue, in the rain, and with these dueling facial performances that speaks to both the animal behind the human masks, and the deeper sadness. Although a fated battle in grand movie tradition, these two shouldn’t be fighting, and it’s hardly a victory in the end.