MEN OF WAR

FILM

SOLDIER

Directed by Paul Anderson

Warner Brothers

Soldier, Warner Brothers' new film starring Kurt Russell, is a futuristic science fiction action movie. What would someone going to the movie expect to see, given this premise? Special effects and outer space settings are pretty likely. So are violence and a romantic twist somewhere in the story. And, as usual, audiences at science fiction movies are ready to set aside notions of realism and plausibility in order to enjoy the film as an entertaining spectacle rather than an intellectual experience. Soldier makes use of most of these assumptions, but in the end turns out to be a disappointing film no matter what expectations or allowances viewers might be willing to make.

Kurt Russell's newest action movie delivers a typical science fiction story line. Russell's character, Todd, is a futuristic soldier, reared in a sophisticated training program designed to produce the best fighters possible. But Todd's unit is soon replaced by genetically-engineered soldiers, who are more advanced in every way. That is, they are stronger, more persistent and have chests that suggest they grew up eating creatine three times a day. Todd, thought dead after a confrontation with the biggest and meanest of the new breed (Cain 607, played by Jason Scott Lee), is sent to a waste disposal planet where he regains consciousness and is befriended by a group of settlers stranded on the intergalactic trash heap.

Sounds good so far. The audience expects high tech and will probably let slide the fact that Todd is unconscious but remains uninjured after his stay in the garbage ship and the 500-foot fall he and the rest of the dumped garbage experience. The only visual or special effects worth mentioning, though, are the few panoramic shots of the barren planet littered with old scrap iron, cars and retired aircraft carriers. On a side note, those expecting chemistry between Todd and Sandra (Connie Nelson) should look elsewhere, Soldier gets an R rating solely because of old-fashioned graphic violence.

Director Paul Anderson envisions Soldier as a sci-fi/western hybrid, perhaps something along the lines of Road Warrior or Waterworld. Apart from barren settings, however, the three films have little in common. Soldier takes itself quite seriously, but the story's take-home message is so blatantly obvious that viewers may wonder whether the movie is actually some sort of farce poking fun at itself. Subtly crafted lines such as "My daddy always said, `If you want to put a nail in a board, you don't do anything fancy, you just use a hammer'" spoil any hope of Soldier's delivering a serious message without sounding comical.

The film's themes are, by themselves, perfectly fine, but Soldier is just not the vehicle to deliver them. The audience is made to feel sympathy for Todd and the other replaced men. They have all killed hundreds of men for their country only to be summarily dismissed after Cain 607 proves himself superior. In the end, of course, the new men are not up to the challenge of tackling Kurt Russell, so viewers realize that progress is not necessarily for the best. Okay, but Todd is not exactly a Boy Scout. He was picked at birth, and along with the other trainees, grew up learning lessons such as "weakness is death" and "winning is everything." Todd's world is built on survival of the fittest--one completes training by managing to stay alive for 17 years. It is hard to sympathize with Todd against the genetically-enhanced Cain 607, since both spent their youths killing their classmates.

But the movie focuses on more than the soldiers. The people who rescue Todd after his fall from the garbage carrier are unlucky colonists who crashed on the planet years ago. Stranded, they have managed to build a small community, using as raw materials only the things that others have discarded. So just as the settlers have found use in others' garbage, so also do viewers see that both Todd and the colonists have worth, despite being tossed aside by society. The film leaves little ambiguity regarding its interpretation, unless one is confused by Soldier's apparent attempt to paint the Darwinian military as somehow more acceptable as long as they do not resort to genetic engineering.

With only one character, Soldier relegates everyone but Russell to the background. Even the little one sees of the supporting cast is no meaningful basis on which to judge their acting abilities. One nice twist in the story is that Todd, the only character to give any signs of development throughout during the film, has probably about ten lines of dialogue in the whole move. Russell does a good job of portraying Todd, who does not speak because he cannot cope with life beyond the military. He even comes close to evoking a bit of pity for the character, and the audience at least gets to cheer when Todd single-handedly wipes out Cain's entire unit.

Even the Rambo-esque ending cannot save this movie. The audience does at least get to root against the new military (commanded, ironically, by a handful of ridiculously-foppish officers) and cheer when Todd lands a punch. Despite the gory violence, the predictable plot and obvious themes in the film are, in some ways, more painful experiences for the audience. A respectable performance by one actor and the creation of a stunningly vast garbage heap constitute the highlights in a film that cannot last very long in theaters where only the best films survive.