You may not know the name David Peoples, but you are certainly familiar with his work. He is the writer behind “Blade Runner,” “Unforgiven,” and “Twelve Monkeys” – three of the most popular and unforgettable movies of the last century. He is also the writer of a relatively obscure, but no less brilliant, 1998 sci-fi action movie called “Soldier,” starring Kurt Russell.
“Soldier” takes place in 2035, in roughly the same universe as “Blade Runner” (although the film also contains references to “Alien,” “Escape from New York,” and other futuristic sci-fi of the ‘80s and ‘90s). Space travel is a well-established technology, and the colonization of new planets has led to an endless sequence of brutal military conflicts between unnamed powers. Unlike “Star Wars,” the political context of war is never discussed in “Soldier.” For the film’s main character, a hardened veteran named Todd 3465, war is not a matter of right and wrong, it is simply what he does.
Trained from birth (in 1996) to be the perfect soldier, Todd has endured physical and psychological trauma designed to desensitize him to violence, pain and normal emotions. At one point, he is asked what he feels. He answers, “Fear. And discipline.” Yet Todd is not a robot; he is courageous, loyal, and, while emotionally stunted, fundamentally a decent person. Although he has committed atrocities during the course of his service, he is haunted by the faces of the civilians that he has killed. The first question the movie asks us to consider is whether a man like Todd, who has done terrible things, and who knows no life except violence, can be anything other than what other men have made him.
Todd himself is forced to confront this question after he is defeated in a training exercise by a younger, genetically-enhanced soldier. Unlike Todd’s generation, this new breed of soldier has not just been trained, they have been biologically altered to be stronger, faster, and more aggressive. The implication is that, while Todd is fundamentally a human being, his replacement Caine 607 has had his humanity removed through science. Although Todd survives the competition, he is badly injured. Since he is now obsolete, the military has no further interest in him, so he is literally thrown out with the trash.
The trash, in this case, is dumped on a desolate garbage planet ironically named Arcadia 234, home to a group of peaceful settlers who had crash-landed on the planet and established a makeshift colony. Todd is nursed back to health by a married couple named Mace and Sandra. As Todd slowly recuperates, he observes Mace and Sandra’s affection towards each other and their non-verbal son, Nathan.
Todd’s emotional struggle during this period is part of what separates “Soldier” from a typical futuristic sci-fi flick. Unlike the largely one-dimensional good guys and bad guys that inhabit the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, Todd is forced to grapple with real emotions. He is physically stronger and more capable than any of the settlers, and it is obvious to both Sandra and her husband that only Todd’s lifetime of discipline restrains him from acting on his sexual attraction to her. At one point, Sandra asks him what he feels. He answers, “Fear. And discipline.”
Todd himself barely speaks (the character only has 104 words of dialogue in the entire film), so he feels a kinship to young Nathan, but he has no idea how to relate to a child. As a gesture of respect, he addresses everyone, including Sandra, as “sir.” Trained only for battle, Todd has few skills that are useful to a tranquil, agrarian community. Underlying everything is the existential question: “If I am no longer a soldier, what am I?”
As Todd grows stronger, and resumes his training (using a suspended water heater as a punching bag in a scene that would put a “Rocky” montage to shame), the colonists become increasingly uncomfortable with his presence. In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Todd sees a venomous snake crawling towards Nathan. Rather than kill the snake himself, Todd tosses one of his boots to Nathan, and gestures for him to smash the snake with it. Paralyzed with fear, Nathan is unable to do so, and only his father’s intervention at the last second saves his life. In a separate incident, Todd experiences a flashback and almost kills a friendly settler. After this, Todd is deemed unfit for the community. He is given some tools and expelled from the colony. For the first time ever, Todd cries. It would be an exaggeration to call Todd a Christ figure, but the scene is reminiscent of the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
At this point, the film asks us another question: “Is it possible to have peace without preparing for war?” Caine 607 and his troops are sent to Arcadia 245 for a training exercise. They soon discover the colonists, and are ordered to exterminate them.
Early that morning, Sandra and Mace are startled awake by the sound of Nathan crushing a snake with his father’s boot. They immediately realize that the boy had the werewithal to save their lives because of what Todd taught him. Realizing that Todd’s skills actually have great value, Mace goes out to find him and bring him back. Along the way, they discover the invading troops, and Todd returns to save the day. Sandra asks him what he is going to do. He replies, “I’m going to kill them all, sir.”
Here the film unwraps yet another layer of satisfying narrative. As Todd wages a one-man guerrilla war against a troop of extremely powerful but inexperienced super-soldiers, we are reminded of Waylon Jennings’ lyric, “Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill.” Todd anticipates every move and counter-move of his opponents, leading them into one death trap after another.
In a rewarding twist, Todd encounters the surviving members of his old unit. They have been disarmed and demoted to menial duties in service of the super-soldiers, but they still recognize Todd as their commanding officer. In their own stoic way, they demonstrate their love and loyalty by willingly joining him in the battle against their replacements and the corrupt officers who command them.
Ultimately, Todd and his fellow veterans are victorious, and they and the colonists flee the planet in the enemy spaceship, setting a course for the colonists’ orginal destination.
One of the hallmarks of great art is that it transcends the confines of its story, to address the human experience. Picasso’s “Guernica” is about the 1937 bombing by the Nazis of a specific town in Spain, but in the painting’s twisted horror, it speaks a universal truth about the experience of civilians in wartime. Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane” is nominally a story about a relationship between a young man and woman, but not only is it an allegory about drug use, it addresses universal feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy and loss. In the same way, “Soldier” speaks to all of us who have felt like misfits, wondered who we are, and felt uncertain of our roles in a rapidly changing world.
Although Kurt Russell is normally associated with the tough, smart-ass roles he played in movies like “Captain Ron,” “Escape from New York,” and “Big Trouble In Little China,” he imbues the character of Todd with such depth and sensitivity that it is easy to see why “Soldier” was expected to be a box-office smash. Unfortunately, the film did terribly in theatres. Perhaps it was too cerebral for audiences expecting space battles, or perhaps it wasn’t marketed in a way that resonated with the people who would have enjoyed it.
Although “Soldier” is over 20 years old, the special effects have held up well, and the theme it explores – the need for balance between the desire for peace and the capacity for war – is as relevant as ever. Just as Todd learns the joy of planting a seedling and becoming part of a family, the colonists discover the confidence that comes from growing strong and learning to defend themselves.
“Soldier” is more than just an action movie in the same way that the character of Todd is more than just a soldier. It raises important questions about what it means to be a fully integrated person, and it challenges us to grow beyond the identity that others have given us, in order to become who we really are.