Small Soldiers (1998)
Directed by Joe Dante
November 30-December 1 at the IFC Center, part of its America, Fuck Yeah! series
The statement “War is hell” implicitly validates battle, suggesting grim inevitability. It’s different from “war is wrong.” Accordingly, the “war is hell” film often takes place directly from a soldier’s point of view and gives the bloody impression of having plunged us into the thick of battle, usually without context beyond the sense of a greater purpose; when there are jokes, they’re cracked by the soldiers to make the guys look more charismatic, to line us up closer to them and, by extension, to make us more willing to accept bloodshed for forming part of their characters. The “war is wrong” film, by contrast, avoids direct representation of battle, preferring didacticism to suspense and alienation to direct engagement. Its goal is to take us far enough away from war for us to see war’s problems clearly. Our laughter at a “war is wrong” movie comes from shocks of recognition.
Small Soldiers is a “war is wrong” film, and the sharpness of its satire comes from how it acknowledges “war is hell”‘s appeal. The film begins with two toy designers at the company Globotech pushed to answer their boss’s call for more aggressive Commando Elites; when they protest about making the toys too violent, the CEO snaps, “So don’t call it violence. Call it action.” The plastic action figures, programmed with microchips swiped from the military, quickly come to karate-chopping life. At first suburban boys greet them bedazzledly (“They’re walking and fighting and they’re so cool!”), but wonder turns to horror as it becomes clear that the Commandos have been programmed only to wreak havoc: their sole purpose is to annihilate the Gorgonites, a peaceful race of other toys, at all costs, including bombing suburban homes.
The sight of little plastic men flailing and gasping when their limbs have been severed won’t disturb you if you don’t think of them as human, but then again, American media has already trained audiences to approach real battle like it was fiction. The training has happened largely through entertainment, whether video games, television, or cinema. “I think WWII was my favorite war,” a suburban dad says while Commandos gather outside his window; he adjusts his television to make the colors of the war film he’s watching brighter.
In his great essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” George Orwell argued that all forms of power worship come from the same basic impulse. War is boys’ play, and violence becomes action when you swallow the marketing. As the Commando Elites blast pop music on boom boxes to scare a house’s residents out, a girl cries that the Marines did the same thing to Manuel Noriega; as the Globotech CEO wanders through a neighborhood efficiently ravaged by the toys, his secretary paying off everyone who complains, he says to contact the company’s military division.