How do you top Blade Runner? Well, you don’t. But you can take a 15-year old script from its screenwriter and lean as far away from Blade Runner as possible while still setting it, loosely, in the same universe. But to accomplish such a feat, you’d have to be B-movie virtuoso Paul W.S. Anderson.
The ‘90s took many of the heady science fiction concepts of the ‘80s, alongside its muscle-bound action heroes, and strung them together in packages that weren’t often neat but were highly entertaining. Demolition Man, Stargate, Timecop, all films you might hesitate to call classics of the genre, yet significant all the same, even if mostly due to nostalgia.
In 1998, before The Matrix entirely rewrote the rules of science fiction blockbusters for the 21st century, a movie came along and dared to ask, “What if we did Commando with genetically engineered soldiers and set it in space?” Such a feat would inevitably become one of the biggest movies in the world, right? Wrong. It was a box office failure that fell so quickly it burned up upon reentry. But oh, what a brilliant spectacle it was, one that’s worth digging through the wreckage to revisit.
Soldier is a 1998 film written by David Webb Peoples and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Dubbed a “spin-off sidequel” to Blade Runner, and containing numerous references to the works of Phillip K. Dick, Soldier is fundamentally un-Dickian. It’s a meat and potatoes action sci-fi movie, the kind Anderson would become best known for.
The story isn’t entirely original, but the always-great Kurt Russell is compelling enough to sell this nu-metal version of John Carter. Soldier is really all about the action sequences, particularly a final battle in the rain between Russell’s Sergeant Todd and Jason Scott Lee’s Caine 607 — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.
In 1996, a new government military training program takes orphans from birth and trains them to be disciplined killers. They know of no world outside the training facility and follow no one except their military commanders. One of these soldiers is Todd (whose younger self is played by none other than Kurt Russell’s son, and John Walker himself, Wyatt Russell.)
In 2036, Todd is the best soldier to emerge from the program, overseen by Captain Church (Gary Busey). But in the years since, the military has developed a new breed of soldiers, genetically engineered and entirely lacking in all emotion except pure rage, led by physically perfect Caine 607. Todd and his fellow soldiers from the 1996 program are demoted and discarded.
Todd is dumped on the wasteland planet Arcadia 234, where he is given shelter by a colonist couple also stranded on the planet. Mace (Sean Pertwee) and Sandra (Connie Nielsen) welcome Todd into their family. He learns what it means to be part of a community, to feel emotion, and to care for others. But his newfound peace is short-lived when the genetically engineered soldiers land on the planet to use it as a training ground.
Because the world is listed as being uninhabited, the soldiers are tasked by Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) with wiping out the colonists as a training exercise. Lacking back-up or the high-tech weapons he previously had at his disposal in the military, Todd launches guerilla warfare against the enhanced soldiers, going into full Predator-mode before a rain-soaked battle with Caine that should be taught in film school.
Soldier isn’t deep but it has a solid hook, and Kurt Russell is in full action-hero mode, which is always fun. The Blade Runner references are pretty minimal outside of a crashed Spinner and a few planetary namedrops culled from Roy’s “tears in rain” speech, but there is an interesting parallel between Replicants built with a limited life span and soldiers made to be disposable.
For fans of Paul W.S. Anderson, this is essential viewing, and probably his most underseen theatrical film. So if you’re planning on getting (more) hyped up for the Mortal Kombat reboot this week, don’t just settle for Anderson’s adaptation of the game. Throw Soldier on as well. I promise you, the fatalities are better.
Soldier is streaming now on Tubi in the U.S.