Popular culture should never be ignored. Shakespeare during his day was popular culture. Today, he's considered the greatest writer in the English language.
These days, the two biggest media for popular culture are TV and the movies. As all art does, they reflect life. Sometimes, they predict it.
One little-known and underrated movie that fits this pattern is Soldier, starring the also underrated Kurt Russell. What makes this movie, which appears to be little more than Grade B action/adventure in space, so special?
It's about Empire, and the soldiers it uses to advance itself. This time, it's not just on Earth, but in far space. Since we've always had empires on earth, will we have them in space? Perhaps? Certainly?
The movie, which is set in a not-very-far future, portrays Russell as Sergeant Todd, a genetically engineered, nearly mute soldier. He can talk, but has little to say. I doubt he says 20 words in the film, although his learning what feelings are, portrayed through his expressions and body language, is poignant. Once, sitting alone around a fire, tears come to his eyes, probably for the first time in his life. Another time, asked what it's like to be a soldier, he can barely answer, "Fear. . .discipline."
There is a scene early in the movie in which a list of battles are scrolling in the background. One reads, "Tannhauser's Gate." This is an allusion to the movie, Blade Runner, which is about artificially created humans known as replicants. The implication is that Soldier, set even farther in the future than Blade Runner, also breeds artificial humans as soldiers. Sergeant Todd is one of them. Ominously, he is part of the "Adam Project" – creating the new man, one brutal, violent, conscienceless.
Raised from a child to be a merciless killing machine, Russell finds himself made obsolete when a new set of superior genetically-engineered soldiers shows up. After losing a battle to one of them, Caine (played by Jason Lee Scott), Todd is thought dead, and dumped with the garbage on a "waste disposal" planet.
There, he is found by a rag-tag group of marooned humans. At first accepted by them, Todd finds he has feelings buried in him he did not know were there. For the first time in his life, he has a family. The message is that a prerequisite for killing machines is to have no feelings or family.
As Todd heals, he starts to frighten everyone, and they ask him to leave. That is when he ends up around the fire with tears in his eyes. For the first time in his life, he has found a family and community, but terrifies them with his potential for violence. However, guilt forces the community to invite him back.
Meanwhile, the Empire is busy testing new weapons. Where does it decide to test them? On the waste disposal planet. The parallels to large powerful countries that attack smaller, weaker countries, and in doing so tests it new weapons, is clear.
This time, though, Todd has something worth fighting for.
This is not a perfect movie. Indeed, it's B-movie masquerading as an A one. The special effects are rather cheap; the battle tanks appear to be cars with hollow plywood shells around them. And without Russell, it wouldn't be worth seeing. But his journey from emotionless killer to a man who discovers family and community, is what makes the movie.
As mentioned, there are other messages hidden in this film. Empire always expands itself though the military; it will always attack the defenseless, trying out new weapons on them; and it wants its soldiers to be emotionless killing machines, without mercy or remorse. And if it can, it will use science to create them. And that is something to keep in mind – how far will the State go in altering humans to create what it wants in soldiers?
One major flaw in the movie's portrayal of Empire is that it does not point out it almost always uses as a justification for its depredations the excuse that it is being a benefactor to those attacked. All tyrants (and this has been noticed for thousands of years) call themselves benefactors.
The film is also about the lust for power, and how it degrades. The soldiers are not bad people; indeed in some ways they are admirable. Gary Busey, as a commander, especially illustrates this. He does care about his men. On the other hand, the political types are portrayed as utterly despicable, people only interested in power, unconcerned with whom they murder.
The movie, being essentially a high-class B-movie, is nothing new. It's derivative of Blade Runner, The Terminator, and First Blood, to mention three. But many of those who have seen it find it stays with them. It is not a great film, but it doesn't pretend to be. But for those who look, there are some very important messages here about the expansion of empire, and the eternal fight between Society and the State, and how the latter will always try to absorb, indeed destroy, the first.