PKD flashback: Russell gives powerful turn in ‘Blade Runner’ sidequel ‘Soldier’ (1998) (Movie review)

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lthough many “Blade Runner” fans are probably familiar with the references to Tannhäuser Gate in “Soldier” (1998), I think this film – likewise written by David Webb Peoples — should be more embraced as part of the “BR” universe than it is. At three points in the film – once on a monitor showing Todd’s (Kurt Russell) military campaigns, once as a tattoo on Todd’s arm, and once verbally by Mace (Sean Pertwee) – the battle of Tannhauser Gate is referenced. And The Shoulder of Orion is also in Todd’s files.

Thus, although we don’t know the nature of those two battles, we do know that both Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) — who mentions the battles in his “tears in rain” monologue — and Todd fought in them. We know they take place between 2015 and ’19, within the four-year lifespan of Roy Batty. That also lines up with Todd’s military career; he would be in his prime at that point. So while “Soldier” is a tangential “Philip K. Dick movie” rather than a core entry, I think it qualifies as much as, for example, the “Screamers” sequel.

By 2036, the time of “Soldier’s” events, Todd is considered obsolete, with the next iteration of lab-produced soldiers replacing Todd’s naturally born, strictly trained generation. While PKD rarely wrote about soldiers – instead preferring low-level bureaucrats – Todd is the PKD version of a solider if there ever was one. He’s literally thrown out with the garbage; the military doesn’t even go to the effort to check if he’s still alive.

I’ll forever be in the minority on this, but I loved “Soldier” in 1998 and still do today. Upon its theatrical release, I thought it was smart SF, influenced by my already high opinion of director Paul W.S. Anderson from the previous year’s “Event Horizon.” I hope someday “Soldier” takes its deserved place as a cult classic alongside that space-horror gem.

It’s been said that children are adaptable, and if Todd has had 40 years of forced childhood (in the sense of not being free to make his own choices), the remainder of “Soldier” is about him learning how to be human. An intrinsic sense of decency exists within Todd, and when given a chance, it emerges.

Today, I admire “Soldier” as a window into the future of military operations (I would’ve said “warning” in 1998, but today it’s simply a window), a dark comedy (it’s hilarious how serious the tone is early on, and later on the one-liners are delicious), a tasty revenge yarn, and a legitimately moving story – thanks to Russell, who shows so much depth within a narrow range of facial expressions.

In a pivotal scene on the garbage planet, Todd tries to teach young Nathan (Jared Thorne) how to kill a deadly snake by crushing its head with a boot. He’s then kicked out of the camp. I think this sequence sums up the ideal audience for the film and explains why it wasn’t a hit: “Soldier” is perfect for young people growing up in an age/culture wherein they need to learn the harsh lessons of life, when sheltering and coddling them would be a clear disservice. 1998 America was not that time and place, and maybe 2020 isn’t either, but it might be coming.

Knowing that this movie is part of the “Blade Runner” universe is important for understanding why Arcadia 234 is a relatively nice place to live, despite being the place where humanity dumps its garbage. As Connie Nielsen’s Sandra says, at least they are left alone here. If one thinks about the rainy, filthy 2019 Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” – filled with cop cars that literally look down on you, and where it can be lucrative to hunt down escaped slaves – it makes sense that “being left alone” would be a breath of fresh air, even if you’re inhaling the stench of garbage.

Todd has never been left alone, so we see how a man would turn out after 40 years of “fear and discipline” being the only feelings he knows. Russell does good physical acting in “Soldier” – witness how Todd tightens up when Sandra hugs him. It’s been said that children are adaptable, and if Todd has had 40 years of forced childhood (in the sense of not being free to make his own choices), the remainder of “Soldier” is about him learning how to be human. An intrinsic sense of decency exists within Todd, and when given a chance, it emerges.

Obviously this exchange …

Sandra: “But one soldier, against 17. What are you going to do?”

Todd: “I’m going to kill them all, sir.”

… is a ridiculous (yet pure and effective) crowd-pleaser that serves a purpose within the narrative and in getting people to see the movie, via its use in the trailer. That said, I don’t think “Soldier” is a ridiculous movie on the whole. It’s brazenly simple and unsubtle, yet it works on all the aforementioned levels and allows room for a viewer to insert their own metaphor. Heck, I can see “Soldier” as a metaphor for life – it’s a series of beat-downs, but be on the lookout for the rare good things.

And Peoples gives “Blade Runner” fans a treat by opening up the universe, by suggesting who Batty’s bunch might’ve been fighting in space, and by introducing new planets and moons. The two “BR” films and the novel “The Edge of Human” take place on Earth, and the novel “Replicant Night” stays within our solar system. Perhaps the impossible-to-find novel “Eye and Talon” goes to the stars. And that’s one of the appeals of “Soldier” for a “Blade Runner” nerd. Even if it’s a garbage planet, I’ll take it.

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