What's the world coming to? If you pose that question to Paul Anderson, director of the science-fiction/action flick "Soldier" (also "Mortal Kombat" and "Event Horizon"), you'll find a not-so-distant future full of monosyllabic conversations and gratuitous violence. But at least it's flashy.
In the story by David Webb Peoples ("Unforgiven," "Blade Runner"), the United States' militaristic future begins in 1996, when babies are accepted upon birth into a secret program where they are sheltered from society and taught to be lean, mean fighting machines. Forty years into the future, in 2036, a new breed of genetically engineered soldiers arrives upon the scene to steal the thunder of the now outdated G.I. Joes. The two superior officers of the troops pit their leaders, the veteran Todd (Kurt Russell) and the manufactured Caine (Jason Scott Lee), against each other. The battle is intensely violent and extremely bloody, but in the end Todd is left for dead and dropped onto Arcadia, a garbage outpost planet at the edge of the galaxy.
But surprise -- he's not dead. On Arcadia, Todd is rescued by a group of peaceful inhabitants living in a communal setting amongst the garbage heaps. As they nurse him back to life, he witnesses for the first time expressions of love and compassion, emotions far different from the fear and aggression that have ruled his life. But the moralistic meandering appears to be obligatory and soon give way to more violence as the new breed of warriors prepares to use Arcadia for target practice.
Russell, who pumped up his 40-something body to strong effect for this part, serves as little more than a blank-faced physical specimen. The role could have been played by an actor of much lesser talent than Russell -- where was Schwarzenegger when they needed him?
Lee, who receives second billing in the film but is actually in a very small portion of it, also seems to have buffed up since his nice turn in the title role of "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." But once again, there's not a lot for a futuristic soldier to do other than kick, grunt and bark "Yes sir."
The lack of well-defined characters leaves the weight of the film on the shoulders of director Anderson and his design team. Although they make impressive use of computer graphics in creating the interplanetary playground, none of it appears groundbreaking or original. The same could also be said for the script by Peoples, which seems to borrow loosely from "The Planet of the Apes."
In the end, "Soldier" is nothing more than a B-movie. But unlike the best of that genre, "Soldier" lacks the ingredient that might have given it a fighting chance: a sense of humor.