Soldier’s sci-fi Western is inadvertent B-movie poetry

Soldier’s sci-fi Western is inadvertent B-movie poetry

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. The release of M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, After Earth, has us thinking back on good movies from often-maligned directors.

Soldier (1998)
Soldier is a compact sci-fi Western about a gunslinging super-soldier who must protect a small community from his former comrades. Like the ’50s cowboy and cavalry flicks to which it is indebted, the movie is compulsively unpretentious; nothing here suggests that the filmmakers had any goal in mind except to tell a self-contained genre story with maximum efficiency. 

As a result, Soldier ends up yielding moments of inadvertent, unaffected B-movie poetry: the nearly wordless opening sequence, which tracks the quasi-hero (Kurt Russell) from birth to adulthood; Russell wandering a desolate, trash-strewn planet after a new, genetically engineered generation of soldiers renders him obsolete; Russell living in a drain pipe after being rejected by the planet’s settlers. Casting Russell—a charismatic wiseass if there ever was one—as an emotionless, antisocial killing machine might seem counterintuitive, but his performance is so perversely committed (he spent 18 months preparing for the role) that it becomes compelling. 

Soldier was written by David Webb Peoples, best known for his work on Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys, and Blade Runner (though it’s never overtly stated, Soldier is set in the same fictional universe as Blade Runner, and contains several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to the earlier film). However, the movie’s poker-faced pulp charm belongs to its director, Paul W.S. Anderson—the genre maestro best known for directing video game adaptations (Mortal Kombat, the Resident Evil movies) and movies that feel like video game adaptations (The Three Musketeers, Alien vs. Predator). 

Anderson has his share of critical defenders—many of them classical auteurists like The New York Times’ Dave Kehr—but, for the most part, his name serves as a byword for crass, loud filmmaking. It’s a shame, because, while Anderson’s work is hardly thoughtful, it is remarkably surefooted. His style—which emphasizes clear, tableau-like compositions—is a far cry from the cutty chaos that passes for action filmmaking nowadays. He’s a restrained storyteller who doesn’t try to bog down his films with more thematic weight than they can carry. He knows how to stage a setpiece and he knows how to make someone look like a badass. 

Soldier is about as close to a “serious” movie as Anderson has made—which doesn’t mean that it’s heavy. It’s pulpy but not campy, brisk but not frenetic. It’s everything a B-movie should be.