Retrospective

20 years ago, Jean-Claude Van Damme made the most machismo sci-fi movie ever

Mediocre but mesmerizing, Universal Soldier offers insight into the spectacle monger that Roland Emmerich would become.

There’s something inherently gripping about the observation of wanton destruction. With the luxury of artifice, film has taken advantage of this fascination. Week after week, the violent id that permeates our collective unconscious flickers on the walls of the multiplex. Bodies are mangled, cars are wrecked, buildings are reduced to piles of ash and concrete, all for the sake of entertainment.

No genre better forefronts this bloodlust better than the disaster films that Hollywood churned out from the late 1990s, starting with the unprecedented success of Roland Emmerich’s 1996 sci-fi action epic Independence Day, to the late 2000s, with the genre’s last real gasp of popular relevance being Emmerich’s 2009 end-of-the-world pot-boiler, 2012.

It’s fitting that Emmerich would be the filmmaker to open-and-close this brief revival of the disaster film, a genre that had been popularized twenty years prior by fellow producer and purveyor of high-concept schlock, Irwin Allen, with 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. Upon further scrutiny, the career trajectories of these two men have more in common than one would expect: Both would immediately precede their triumphs with films that were uncharacteristic of their respective styles (Allen directing 1962’s Five Weeks in a Balloon and Emmerich directing 1992’s Universal Soldier), direct decade-defining blockbusters, and ultimately leave the popular consciousness after directing multiple flops in the genre that helped bolster their initial success.

However, unlike Allen, Emmerich’s Universal Soldier shows faint glimmers of the elemental chaos that he would build his career as a popular filmmaker on. As a piece, it represents a crucial stepping stone between the modes of populist action filmmaking present in the 1980s and the 1990s. If the action films of the 1980s represented the rise of the earnest fascist, the ‘90s acted as the physical manifestation of the destruction they wrought.

To say that Universal Soldier is a good film by any traditional metric would be to engage in an exercise in the elasticity of adjectives. The claim can be made, however, that the film is one of the most entertaining pieces of mainstream action filmmaking to come out in the past 30 years, a blank-and-squib bonanza presented with zero pretension. If Robocop is Coca-Cola, Universal Soldier is RC Cola.

The pairing of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren – the first in a series of collaborations that continue on into this year’s Minions: The Rise of Gru – is an inspired choice, especially when considered against Emmerich’s mise-en-scène. If this same script were directed just half a decade prior, the frame would focus on the bodies of our Herculean protagonists, juxtaposing the machinery of the pair’s UniSol gear with the glimmer of their sweat-riddled flesh. As men and as machines, their bodies are tools to commit state violence.

Most action heroes are killing machines, but Universal Soldier is explicit about it.TriStar Pictures

Emmerich eschews this aesthetic preoccupation with the masculine form in favor of the destructive power of the natural world. In the film’s opening Vietnam War sequence, it’s revealed to neither Luc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) nor, by extension, the audience, who the antagonist of the sequence is. Emmerich instead chooses to focus his camera on the looming threat of the natural world. Lightening crashes. Rain pours. The ground swells as the mud consumes the remains of the dead. Luc traverses the jungle, taken aback by the barren landscape of a vengeful earth.

The choice to set the rest of the film in the Arizona desert codifies Emmerich’s thesis that the actions of violent men shall bring with them a terrestrial wrath. This isn’t to say that Emmerich completely abandons the 1980s’ preoccupation with masculine flesh. Universal Soldier still succumbs to the casual authoritarianism that proliferated the films of the decade, where the solution to any problem is dependent on who can draw a firearm the fastest.

But the film is also littered with a post-Watergate distrust of American authority, specifically the military industrial complex, that wouldn’t be out-of-place in an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone vehicle. These artifacts lend themselves to making the film a fascinating cultural object, the last vestiges of a decade in decline. In a post-Reagan, pre-9/11 America, the machismo of the ‘80s seemed hopelessly antiquated. The complete and total destruction of canonized monuments for the sake of spectacle was where the real money was.

Universal Soldier has an eye for destruction, but future Emmerich movies would revel in it. TriStar Pictures

Regardless of whether one likes the film, it must be acknowledged that Universal Soldier’s existence is responsible for nearly two decades worth of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. Without it, the world would never have been graced with the creative pairing of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the force that would act as the progenitors of the new wave of disaster films that would go on to dominate box offices. In a fascinating turn of fate, it seems as if the type of film Emmerich would personally oversee the decline of with his one-two-punch of Universal Soldier and Independence Day has come back in style with the rise of the comic book film, trading in .42 Magnums for shields and magic hammers.

Whether Emmerich will ever again join the pantheon of the tastemakers has yet to be seen – if Moonfall, his latest, is any indication, he’ll stay firmly planted in that special realm dedicated to hacks subsumed by the sands of time and good taste – but someone will come and perform the same magic trick that Emmerich pulled off with Independence Day. Whether this means the dial turns towards another decade of high-concept disaster films is a matter that will only become clearer with time. However, one thing is for certain. Whatever art comes out of that genre transition, we’ll never get anything as fun as Universal Soldier.

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