Paul W. S. Anderson is close to being the official filmmaker of Shitty Movie Sundays. I would present this honor outright to John Carpenter were it nor the fact he has displayed far too much competence as a filmmaker in the past, despite the fair amount of shitty films that mar his oeuvre. Other candidates could include b-movie monster master Bert I. Gordon, or even Cash Flagg, as a tribute to his recent demise. Flagg would be an interesting choice, as he was, without a doubt, one of the most unique filmmakers of all time, quality notwithstanding. Anderson, on the other hand, has written, directed, or produced some of the most quotidian dogs to ever make it to the silver screen, number of explosions notwithstanding. The only factor that keeps me from committing Shitty Movie Sundays to total Anderson worship is that he has peppered his career with films that are so shitty as to be unwatchable, and there is no joy in a bad film that repels the viewer so thoroughly that it can’t be sat through without giving up one’s movie-going self to the unique absurdity of substandard cinema. It’s almost a religion in that way.
The deadly sins of the apostates of shitty movies include boredom (and the drift associated with boredom), a lack of self-deprecation regarding the quality of a shitty film (i.e., don’t take yourself too seriously), and a firm belief that the audience is stupid. A shitty movie can be constructed while avoiding these sins, and the final product won’t win any awards, but it will be well on the way to being a satisfying movie experience.
Think of something along the lines of Horror Express. Great cast desperate for a payday, script full of gaping black holes, low-budget, an over-billed appearance by Telly Savalas, and no pretensions. If there were a nobel prize for shitty movies, the filmmakers of Horror Express would be among those sharing the award, like some bleak cinematic version of Jonas Salk, Hilary Koprowski, and Albert Sabin, had they, well, actually received a Nobel for their groundbreaking work in treating...polio.
Soldier, from 1998, was Anderson’s fourth foray into the world of directing motion pictures. It was his followup to the sci-fi disaster that was Event Horizon, a film whose production design was excellent, impressive enough to be influential in both subsequent cinema and video games (especially the hit game Dead Space), but was little more than a crude scare-em-up, another bastard child of Alien and at least a dozen other sci-fi and horror films. Although Event Horizon didn’t recoup its tidy budget in the theaters, it has been a moneymaker since, garnering big bucks from cable and video.
Anderson secured an even larger budget for Soldier, something along the lines of $75 million. But unlike Event Horizon, the viewer is left to wonder where, in Soldier, all the money went. The CGI isn’t all that extensive, and the sets are few and unimpressive, piling up clutter and junk to keep things busy. Visually, Soldier is a gigantic step backwards from Event Horizon. While it may not be fair to compare two completely different films in this way, production design is something that Anderson usually has squared away quite well in his films, so it’s noticeable when this strength is not present.
The film stars Kurt Russell (who reportedly whisked away a $20 million payday, which would clear up some of the mystery about the budget) as Todd, a man trained and brainwashed from birth to be a robotic, order-obeying killing machine. After many battles, when it appears he has outlived his usefulness, he is discarded, literally, with the garbage, and finds himself marooned on a world piled high with human refuse.
Todd finds refuge with a small group of survivors of a spaceship that had crashed on the planet many years before. As this is the first experience in his lifetime of existence outside the rigid structure of a future dystopian military, he finds it hard to fit in. As Todd himself puts it, life as a soldier consisted of “discipline...and fear,” while his new hosts are as full of empathy and real human emotion as the rest of us, or so it is drilled into the viewer at every opportunity. This is as close as the film gets to effectively exploring the nature of Todd’s upbringing and indoctrination, beyond it being more than just fodder for Anderson’s grist mill.
Of course, the military unit that did away with Todd finds its way to his new home, and he has to defend it, the only way he knows how. Much death and explosions later, the film ends. Long before that, however, it became clear that another of its great weaknesses was the simple lack of dialogue from Russell’s Todd. He hardly says a word throughout the entire film. Searches in the tubes have turned up various word counts, ranging from 75 to 114 (that’s $175,000 per word, for anyone who’s counting), but whatever the number is, it’s hard to have a character gobbling up so much screen time with so little to say. Russell manages the best he can with eyes that do genuinely look like they have the thousand-yard stare, but it’s not enough.
The climactic battle plays out predictably enough, and there’s nothing really wrong with that, had it been done well. But, like the rest of the film, it just doesn’t look all that good, and the action itself isn’t all that convincing. In short, these super soldiers of the future, Todd included, wouldn’t stand a chance against a platoon of weekend warriors from Garfield Heights. Maybe I’m being a bit too picky, but it appears that soldiers of the future have never heard of the concept of “cover.”
Soldier is just a bad film. From beginning to end, it never crosses the elusive plain between believability and bullshit. If that were easy, every film would be good. But it’s not. And it never has been something Anderson has been able to master. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than Soldier.
Nuts & Bolts: Soldier is from way back in 1998, a much simpler time full of fairies and puppy dogs, when it was okay if CGI didn’t look all that real, but where it at least still obeyed the laws of physics when it came to camera angles. It was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, and written by David Webb Peoples. It starred Kurt Russell (Todd); a HUGE Jason Scott Lee (Caine); Gary Busey (Church); Connie Nielsen (Sandra); Jason Isaacs (in yet another role as a despicable Englishman, Mekum); Sean Pertwee (Mace); and Michael Chiklis as Jimmy Pig, pre-Shield and post-Commish, probably among the most bizarre transitional periods an actor can go through; and many others.