Posted on August 6, 2015
From time to time it’s easy to forget how much of an impact (whether for good or ill) a director can have on a movie. Beyond the ability to completely wreck the project by bringing in his own writer at the last minute because the script that’s been worked on for three years doesn’t suit his vision, what happens when a director has no vision?
Ridley Scott famously suffered from a case of too much vision when making Blade Runner. It wasn’t until his editor put together a decent cut from all the miles of footage he shot that anyone had any idea that there was a movie in there.
But what happens when the director has no vision? A really good answer to that question is a movie called Soldier. I am and have always been a huge Kurt Russell fan, so when the previews for this movie first started coming out, I was one of the first to line of for tickets. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of worst cases of flat footed, unimaginative storytelling ever.
It was directed without flair or imagination by Paul W. S. Anderson, famous for spitting out a stream of Resident Evil movies, but it didn’t have to be the slap in the face to the audience that it turned out to be.
The story, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) is actually quite intriguing. It centers around a human who has been trained since birth to be a soldier but who is then put out to pasture after a second generation of better trained soldiers comes into the field.
He is literally thrown away and when the garbage scow dumps its contents on some hellhole of a planet, he is welcomed by the peaceful, peace loving inhabitants to make it his home.
This already sounds like an Eastwood Man-With-No-Name movie, doesn’t it? A mysterious and deadly stranger comes into a remote town to root out evil and avenge injustice. But what’s his story? Where does he come from? Why is he doing the things he does?
In the Eastwood movies, these things are largely left to our imaginations, maybe filled in a bit with a few brief flashbacks. and its that mystery that draws us to the characters in the Spaghetti Westerns and films like High Plains Drifter.
Anderson (puzzlingly to my mind) decides instead to literally tell the soldier’s story from birth straight on through to his arrival in the desolate off-world hamlet he will inevitably be called upon to save.
This construction causes us to have to sit through a series of vignettes (from birth, to infancy, to school, to military conflicts, etc.) which takes far too long to set up what is ultimately a disappointing first set-piece: the competition between Russell’s version one soldier and Jason Scott Lee’s new improved version.
If the movie was about obsolescence, this scene would have deserved all the screen time it got, but the movie is about redemption and finding life in yourself when you thought you were dead. Then, seemingly half way through the movie, the trash gets taken out and the soldier begins his new life.
We already know what’s going to happen because Anderson was so obvious about setting it up so we kind of kick around watching as Russell makes inroads into civilization while we wait for the bad guys to show up.
I want to make two things very clear: Kurt Russell is awesome in this film and he has nothing to apologize for and the final shootout is engaging if not particularly well directed.
Once upon a time, Topher Grace wanted to learn film editing so he bought himself an Avid (or whatever, how should I know), ripped all of the footage from Blu-Ray discs of the three Star Wars prequels and somehow cut together one pretty good movie. That’s what editing can do even in the face of disappointing directing.
I’ve long been tempted to do the same thing to Soldier.
Imagine if the movie started off with the soldier being discovered in the trash and taken in by the colonists, the whole first act peppered by terrifying flashbacks (quick, jerky, bloody like a broken wrist) of his prior life. Then imagine that the first act ends like this:
What’s out there?
(Squinting into the darkness, his voice low like a dying whisper)
Me… Version 2.
Then he goes down to train and we cut his workout with the competition he lost to his replacement. This really kicks up the stakes because we know he’s already lost this fight once before. But there’s one difference: This time he has something to fight for instead of just following orders.
What are we going to do?
(finally turning to look at her)
Nothing. I’m going to do it.
Now that’s a movie! Right? Absolutely.