Universal Soldier (1992) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Our soldiers fit all wars, universally guaranteed! Offer void where prohibited.

Universal Soldier is a surprising film that attempts to blend action/sci-fi with a social conscience. It creates a story that is fun and exciting, but also relatively predictable in the standard action template.

First Impressions

The trailer explains that a top-secret government program is reanimating dead soldiers to become perfect fighting machines. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are two of these soldiers. Until something causes one of them to glitch. Now that soldier (Van Damme) is on the run with a reporter threatening to expose the program, and Lundgren and the other Universal Soldier’s must track them down and stop them, by any means necessary. It looks like an explosive and action-packed thriller, but appearances can be deceiving.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Universal Soldier

Universal Soldier title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In Vietnam, 1969, Sgt Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) believes that all Vietnamese people are traitors and begins killing them indiscriminately. Private Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) attempts to stop him, but the two begin to fight and end up killing each other. They are shipped off as MIA, with the Army not wanting to admit to what has happened by one of their own. Twenty-two years later a group of terrorists have taken over the Hoover Dam tourist area and begin killing hostages. Colonel Perry (Ed O’Ross) arrives with a truckload of Universal Soldiers, UniSols for short, and deploys them to stop the terrorists. These super soldiers swim faster, run harder, and follow orders better than normal soldiers.

At the outskirts of the Dam, Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker), a cocky television reporter, shows up late and gives a live broadcast of the events. She is fired by her producer after that and vows to get another story to get her job back. The soldiers, all identified by the GR-prefix storm the dam, killing the terrorists and saving the hostages. GR44, who is a revived Luc, sees a Vietnamese couple on the mission which causes his “programming” to snap as he begins to remember his previous life. Veronica and her cameraman, Huey (Joseph Malone), sneak into the UniSol landing zone to get some photos. The Army announces the hostages are freed with no further casualties or injuries, but Veronica finds GR76 (Ralf Moeller), a UniSol that is all shot up and apparently dead.

GR76 suddenly awakens, frightening Veronica who runs from the others following her. GR13, the reanimated Sgt. Scott, shoots Huey and tries to take Veronica into custody. This action forces GR44 out of his fugue state where he rescues her and drives away. Colonel Perry orders the remaining soldiers to re-board the HQ Truck while the lead scientist, Woodward (Leon Rippy), is more concerned about GR13’s behavior, wanting to sedate and “unplug” him. Perry reminds Woodward that this is a covert mission that not even the Pentagon knows about. The remaining UniSol’s, including GR55 (Tiny Lister Jr.), GR61 (Simon Rhee) and GR86 (Eric Norris) arrive at a small motel in Ash Fork, AZ, and destroy it while looking for Luc and Veronica.

Universal Soldier

The UniSols need to stay at a constant cool temperature in order to preserve the chemicals from destroying their reanimated flesh.

The pair escape the destruction but are followed again to a gas station, where Luc strips down and asks Veronica to look for a tracker on his body. Cutting it out, they escape the explosive return of the UniSol’s by hiding in trunks of abandoned cars packed with ice, to avoid their infrared tracking. Veronica, still smelling a story, helps Luc steal some paperwork from the UniSol HQ Truck, hoping to get her job back–since the Army has implicated her in the death of her cameraman, and theft of government property. As they escape GR13 surprises them in the back seat of the car. Luc crashes the vehicle and GR13 is flung out, finally remembering who he really is. He returns to the truck and kills Colonel Perry and several other scientists.

Veronica and Luke find a phone number for the Veteran’s Hospital and the name of Dr. Christopher Gregor (Jerry Orbach) who was originally part of the project. They manage to track him down and he explains his research on hyper accelerating the bodies and reversing dead tissue. But he also says they were never able to stop the need for cooling the bodies, explaining Luc’s constant need for ice baths. Luc begins to remember more about himself, as he and Veronica are captured by the police, while Sgt Scott takes further control of the UniSol project killing more scientists, including Woodward who accidentally blows himself up with a grenade.

The UniSol’s attack the police transport and nearly kill the pair of prisoners, who manage to escape. Veronica makes the choice to stick with Luc, who has decided to visit his parents (Lilyan Chauvin and Rance Howard) house in Louisiana. That evening, Luc awakens to Sgt Scott having taken Veronica and his parents hostage. Scott takes a muscle enhancer and proceeds to beat the crap out of Luc. Luc swipes the last enhancer, injecting himself and the two fight in the rain. Luc manages to get the upper hand and kills Scott by impaling him on the thresher. “You’re discharged, Sarge!” Luc checks that Veronica is safe and the two of them embrace.

Scott thinks he’s still in Vietnam fighting the insurgents. He doesn’t realize he’s alive.” – Dr Gregor

Universal Soldier

Luc tries to wrangle a room in a low-budget motel, one of the films humorous moments.

History in the Making

Universal Soldier was the first major film release for director Roland Emmerich after several smaller, independent sci-fi films including Moon 44. It was also the beginning of his career directing some of the biggest sci-fi films of the 90’s which include Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla. This also marks the first partnership between Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin, who would continue working together on projects up through Independence Day: Resurgence in 2016. The film also represents the height of popularity for action heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. It is primarily a vehicle for both Van Damme and Lundgren to show their martial arts and fighting skills. Both actors had enjoyed modest success in the action genre and had more coming. Van Damme was known for martial arts films like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Death Warrant, as well as the meager sci-fi action flick Cyborg. Lundgren had a mix of titles as well playing the villain in Rocky IV, as well as the leads in Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, and sci-fi/cop actioner I Come in Peace. The two would have other sci-fi films in their future, with Van Damme starring in Timecop, Lundgren having a supporting role in Johnny Mnemonic, and the two reuniting for several more Universal Soldier sequels.

This film is also part of a trend from the 80s about the Vietnam war and its treatment of the soldiers, on both sides. These 80s films, which were only a little over a decade from the end of the war, revisited the trauma to reflect on the events of the war and try to get an understanding of the cost. Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket all had different things to say about the war and the soldiers who fought it. But the one thing they all had in common was the trauma and effects of war on the young men who fought, especially those that survived. Universal Soldier came out much later, after these other films had already made their impact, and seems as if it was really only using the war elements as a convenient backstory. Had the film waited a few years it could have used the Persian Gulf War as a similar element. Of course, Universal Soldier takes a decidedly science-fiction bent to this notion of war while dealing with some of the same thematic issues.

Universal Soldier

Sgt. Andrew Scott now leads the remaining UniSol’s in hunting dow the traitor, Luc Deveraux.


Universal Soldier fits in with much of the other late 80s and 90s era science fiction films. These films would take a more typical action formula and interject minor to moderate sci-fi elements into them. Recent examples that Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked into include The Abyss and I Come In Peace. More specifically, the film was one of the first entries in the subgenre of Military Fiction. These are stories or films that deal with soldiers in wartime situations, with a prime example being Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein or even the farcical Megaforce. To a lesser extent, the TV series Star Trek is a style of military fiction, which is probably more evident in the Star Trek films from the 80s and 90s than the original series from the 60s. The best example of pre-Universal Soldier military fiction would have to be the space marines in James Cameron’s Aliens. Without the sci-fi elements, there is little difference between these characters and their counterparts in a Vietnam-era war film. But add in the space ships, the pulse rifles and xenomorph aliens and the war genre becomes science-fiction.

While Universal Soldier was one of the first films to deal with the use of super soldiers in this context, it was not the first piece of science-fiction. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers book from 1959 (later adapted into a 1997 film) had elements of these bio-advanced soldiers. But possibly the idea that many might think about is the comic book Captain America. This character, most recently the star of several popular films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was injected with chemicals to create an enhanced soldier capable of feats of superhuman strength. The creation of the character of The Winter Soldier in Captain America comics circa 2005 has a lot in common with the UniSols. Both are packed on ice, though The Winter Soldier is cryogenically frozen in between missions rather than just cooled off, they both get injections that mess with their memories, and both have been given strength enhancing drugs. The one thing The Winter Soldier has is a cybernetic arm. While super soldiers might often be characterized with non-biological enhancements, the UniSols do not appear to have anything non-organic about them.

With all the stories of super soldiers in sci-fi and comics, is it any surprise that there were even non-fictional attempts by individuals, scientists and governments to create super soldiers to be used in conventional wars. Ideas like the First Earth Battalion, a program about creating a New Age peacekeeping force, or MKUltra, a series of government experiments that attempted to use drugs and various forms of physical abuse to unlock hidden mind powers in their subjects (see also the creation of the Scanners and characters from Stranger Things). So far none of these programs are in actual use (at least as far as the public knows).

Universal Soldier

Luc and Andrew were once buddies during the Vietnam war, before the Sergeant went crazy and started slicing the ears off of dead VCs.

Societal Commentary

Through the course of the 80s a number of popular films dealt with the lingering effects of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Some dealt with the war itself, like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, while others, like Universal Soldier, dealt with the after-effects of the war. The early 80s were a time of renewal for the United States, both financially and as a country. The Vietnam war had been an open sore for America throughout the 70s and the renewed patriotism and economic growth allowed for some healing to begin. Movies like First Blood (and its sequels), Missing in Action (and also its sequels), and Uncommon Valor allowed audiences to process some of the pain brought home by soldiers, while also creating a character that allowed Americans to feel better about their sacrifices. They introduced the ideas of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the soldiers’ re-entering into a society that might shun them for their actions.

Universal Soldier also fits obliquely into this mold. In broad strokes, it set up a picture of damaged soldiers doing unspeakable things during the war, and then being brought back home to deal with that trauma. The science-fiction aspects of this film changed the plot around a bit. In this case, the soldiers returned in body bags, to once again be put into the service of serving their country, and this time without permission. For all these strong themes and tropes about soldiers and their ethics or morality, one strange element stands out in the film: its anti-smoking message. Veronica smokes everywhere. She smokes as she’s about to go on camera, forcing her producer to point out and even take the cigarette from her. As the film progresses and she’s on the run, her nicotine withdrawal kicks in. She says that she’d kill for a cigarette, which puzzles Luc. Eventually she claims she gave up smoking. This weird thread throughout the film feels like a dictate from the studio to include at least one positive element. You know, for the kids.

Universal Soldier

Luc is outclassed by Scott, who has taken muscle enhancers generating superior strength.

The Science in The Fiction

While the UniSols presented in the film are not cyborgs, they do have chemically enhanced bodies that allow them to be alive twenty-two years after being shot and stabbed. Dr Gregor (possibly named after Kafka’s Gregor Samsa from his book The Metamorphosis) explains that the tissue in the soldiers has been hyper-accelerated which somehow reverts the dead tissue back into living flesh. This would heal the wounds that the soldiers received. But the side-effects (of which there are always consequences in stories like this), included the bodies running so hot that the subjects would have a stroke. Thus the bodies needed to be cooled often and wore alarms to tell them when they got too hot. Drugs were also used to sedate the brain to make the soldiers more pliable, as well as muscle enhancers to provide them with super physical strength. The experiments were being conducted for some time, so if Luc and Andrew were not among the first batch of “recruits” it raises the question of how they were actually brought back to life after brain death. This is probably the most “sci-fi” aspect from the film.

The doctor also mentions something he calls “regressive traumatic recall.” This is the idea that the final thought in the soldiers minds when they died, originally, is what becomes their key trait, or the single emotion they focus on, after reanimation if they ever miss having their brains sedated. Luc’s final wish was to go home, while Scott’s was the insane idea that everyone was a traitor and that he needed to kill these “insurgents.” This idea is similar to elements from various horror films where the revived dead body begins carrying out their final purpose again. Of course these are usually killers who come back to life and kill again. Universal Soldier creates two distinct types of soldiers to reanimate not only to set up the main conflict of the film, but to show that UniSol reanimation process might not be totally immoral.

Universal Soldier

Luc finds some extra muscle enhancers and managers to get the upper hand, killing Scott on the heavily foreshadowed farm equipment.

The Final Frontier

As with franchises from the 80s, any moderately successful film from the 90s was also regurgitated into sequels. If the studios didn’t want to release them, then home video was the obvious choice. Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business (both 1998) were made for TV and released through the Showtime cable channel. Neither featured actors from the film with Matt Battaglia replacing Van Damme, Andrew Jackson replacing Lundgren, and Chandra West taking Ally Walker’s part. These also included Gary Busey as a doctor and Burt Reynolds as CIA Deputy Director Mentor who was cloning Luc’s brother to be a new UniSol to fight him. In 1999, Van Damme returned for the fourth film, which ignored the events of the two Showtime movies, Universal Soldier: The Return. Then Dolph Lundgren rejoined him for the final two films Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012). They would eventually re-team in the decidedly non-sci-fi series The Expendables.

While Universal Soldier is very much a typical action film from the era, with explosions, shoot outs, and dead bodies it does manage to seem ahead of its time with the subject matter. It derived a lot of elements from literary military fiction and presented this subject matter and these themes to a wider audience that had probably ever been exposed to it before. In terms of science-fiction film, it was definitely a step up for both Van Damme and Lundgren after their precious films, and a huge stepping stone for Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin who had yet to reach the height of their filmmaking summit. The film’s use of humor is also another standout helping it maintain a fun balance to the carnage and destruction. In the end, Universal Soldier deserves a place in the early 90s pantheon of sci-fi films in keeping the genre alive during times when the showier blockbusters were lacking.

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