Very few science fiction movies have brought about more debate than the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. The feature would inspire a 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 produced by Scott and directed by Denis Villeneuve.
However, there is one overlooked flick that is considered a “spiritual successor” of sorts to Blade Runner. It was written in 1983, a year after its predecessor, but would not go into production until the late nineties following a rewrite.
Soldier was a 1998 science fiction action film that has been all but forgotten. It is helmed by Mortal Combat director Paul W. S. Anderson. It was written by Blade Runner co-writer David Peoples, though Anderson would give it a rewrite and cast Kurt Russell as the lead.
Todd (Kurt Russell) was engineered from birth to be a military killing machine with no moral code, only instincts. He and his unit engage in several victories, slaughtering any rebellion. In 2036, Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) informs the program’s leader Captain Church (Gary Busey) that Todd and his team will be replaced by new genetically-enhanced soldiers led by Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee). In a contest, Todd removes Caine’s eye before being defeated.
Thinking him dead, Todd is dumped on Arcadia 234, a waste disposal planet where he is taken in by a refugee family Mace (Sean Pertwee) and Sandra (Connie Nielsen). They try to help him adjust, but his years of military training continue to cause him to act aggressively. Little do they know, Mekum wants to use the refugees as test subjects for his new soldiers to slaughter.
When the movie premiered, audiences were ambivalent toward it, but the critics were harsh and unforgiving.
Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum perfectly illustrates this: “Any cliche you can dream up for a futuristic action movie, any familiar big-budget epic you can think to rip off, Soldier has gotten there first.” She wrote. “This mechanical, violent military-porn fantasy from director Paul Anderson (Event Horizon) and overqualified screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) is a waste of snappy set decoration…”
The filmmakers would later develop a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the project as well. Anderson told Vulture in January that it was the “most stressful” set, citing storms that prevented him from shooting outdoors and forcing him into a studio.
“So it was stressful, not because of the people I was working with,” he noted. “Kurt Russell is delightful and a dream to work with — but just because I wasn’t capturing what I wanted to capture.”
This begs the question, are the critics correct? Is the movie another attempt to grift off the popularity of the science fiction noir that preceded it? Or are they missing something?
After rewatching the film, I felt that it deserved a second look and a new perspective on where it stands not simply because of its connection to Blade Runner, but also on its own merits.
From a technical standpoint, the movie does have some dated special effects that were cutting edge at the time of its release. With this in mind, it has impressive sets, battle scenes, and a well-constructed story.
There is one point that I believe the critics are correct. It does have a lack of character development for almost all of the side characters. While Pertwee and Nielson are solid performers, their characters are sort of thrust onto the audience who are not given a chance to connect with them. Same with the antagonists. Scott Lee and Isaacs have a chilling effect, but we are not aware of their motivations outside of the general “bad guy” need for power.
That being said, the movie has an in-depth story of redemption and finding a home that should be recognized.
Russell portrays Todd as a man who has been tossed out after the newest model of soldier comes down the assembly line. He is literally thrown out with the trash and finds himself taken in with people who are avoiding war. A man-of-war making a home with people of peace. He still retains his instincts and this causes problems. At one point, Todd nearly kills a worker he had previously saved when the man accidentally spooks him while he is working out.
At the conclusion, Todd defeats the new genetically-enhanced soldiers, using his instincts and experience to defeat them, inspiring his old unit to rebel and take back their posts before helping the colonists escape a doomsday device on a stolen vessel, leaving Mekum behind.
It is a character that we know and one that we understand. In some way, it could represent military veterans disregarded after service into an unforgiving society that tries to empathize, but never quite understands. On the other hand, it could represent an employee replaced with a more efficient computer and forced to adapt to an unknown workforce. This is all speculation from my own point-of-view, but I see these parallels in the script.
It is a very human story about your soul getting lost to your occupation, being replaced and disregarded, and finding that lost human soul by not rejecting the past, but using the experience from it to protect what is truly important.
What about Soldier and the connection to Blade Runner? Clearly, it is not a direct sequel, but before the time of shared cinematic universes, it is meant to have an oblique connection. Technology from Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk flick can be found on the screen including a Spinner. Also, Todd is shown to have participated in battles referenced by Rutger Hauer’s character Roy Batty as he dies next to Harrison Ford’s character Deckard. Finally, it has similar themes about the search for humanity and questions about having a soul.
From a certain perspective, it answers those questions better. While Blade Runner uses androids called Replicants to address these questions, Soldier uses a soulless human turned into a mindless killing machine. Can a man who his soul removed become human again? The film seems to suggest that you can find your way back with understanding, kindness, and finding a family.
Does Soldier have flaws? Absolutely. However, I think it is good that modern streaming services have allowed a new audience to experience David Webb Peoples’ science fiction action flick apart from the negativity of the past. It is a film that should be revisited and reevaluated in a positive way.