SOFTWAR is the battlefield of the future, the military capability to remotely engage the enemy without risking soldiers’ lives. In SOFTWAR, along with smart tanks and aircraft and ordnance, virtual infantry outfitted with gloves and headsets and body monitors control their robot drones thousands of miles away. The drones may be destroyed, yet, like a crazy video game, the soldiers never die.
James Maynard works as an engineer at a start-up robotics firm, like most of the people in his just-built idyllic Long Island suburb. One day at a lunchtime softball game he’s hit in the head by a thrown bat; that night he dreams he’s a soldier, a platoon leader on patrol in a foreign city. His platoon is made up of his neighbors. They move through the deserted streets, pinned down by snipers. One of his men is killed, and as he lies on the sidewalk, Maynard notices his shoulder is made of stainless steel.
Maynard can’t sleep. He stalks about the house as if on recon. In the morning he tries to explain to his wife, but she shrugs it off. The kids are playing violent video games while waiting for the school bus, and Maynard can only stare at the carnage.
At the company picnic, we recognize the faces of Maynard’s platoon. He stays away from the softball game, instead watches his boss fly his radio controlled planes. Everything out of his neighbors’ mouths seems somehow related to war, but innocently (“I’m going to do a recon of those weiners.”).
On the way home, they hit a dog. Maynard and his wife search the bushes for it. Maynard finds it; it’s hurt, whimpering, but its legs are made of stainless steel. With a technique that seems practiced, Maynard snaps it neck cleanly. He’s stunned at his ability. Where did it come from? He wraps the dog in his coat before his wife can see it and shoves it in the trunk.
In his basement, Maynard takes apart the dog, astonished at the complexity of it. From the top of the stairs, the family dog watches him.
The dreams continue, the same foreign city, except this time Maynard himself is killed.
The next day he shows his next door neighbor and best friend Raymonde the dog. Raymonde’s an electrical engineer. He says it’s a remote drone, very high end, but there’s too much damage to the head to trace exactly where it’s being controlled from.
At work, Maynard snoops around, looking for clues. He’s sure it’s all related: the dreams, the dog, the neighborhood, the plant.
Even the goofy clerk at the 7-Eleven was part of his platoon. Everything is familiar and strange at the same time, and Maynard turns paranoid, aware of cameras and cops.
By chance, he discovers that he can do Jackie Chan moves, and though he’s never played them before, he’s better than the kids at video games. On the treadmill, he tries to run faster than humanly possible, and fails. In the shower he feels his own arm for a hint of steel, but there’s only muscle. He throws back the shower curtain, and there’s the family dog in the hall, watching.
In the dream, the platoon finds the body of a sniper: he’s Chinese and made of flesh and blood–a fact Maynard’s men laugh at.
Maynard’s wife can’t take these dreams anymore, or his paranoia. The kids are having war dreams now, even she is. He needs to get help. Maynard shows her the dog, saying there’s more to it but he can’t figure it out himself.
The clerk at the 7-Eleven kills two teenagers–supposedly robbers, but the surveillance video the police and Maynard’s boss watch shows him laying in wait for them, slitting their throats as neatly as a Navy SEAL. We’ve got a problem, the cop says. You’ve got a problem, the boss says. In the cell, the clerk is baffled, back to his old self; he wants a lawyer.
Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior stops Maynard in his tracks. Shut up, he says. Turn it up.
In the dream, the clerk loses it in combat, spraying fire wildly, and Maynard kills him, a stainless steel chunk of his skull dinging into the gutter. It’s a joke in the platoon; Tony does this all the time. Guy ain’t wired right.
Maynard tries to get Raymonde to remember, but he can’t. The dog proves nothing.
Late at night, at work in the basement, Maynard finds the family dog staring at him, brazen. Maynard holds out a Phillips-head screwdriver. Come on, Maynard says, and the cop is watching him on-screen through the dog’s eyes.
You think I’m crazy, Maynard says to his wife the next day. I’ll show you crazy, he says, and grabs the dog. What are you doing? she screams. He drags the dog to the basement and tears into it with a pair of pliers. But it’s the real one. The wife calls the police.
At the station, the cop and the boss discuss the problem they’re having with the vets remembering. It’s not systematic, the boss insists. It’s only a few misfits.
The cops leave Maynard out in the middle of the woods where he ran over the dog. He starts to walk back toward town, and there in the road is the family dog. Only his training and some luck lets him escape.
Maynard gets in his car and cruises the dark streets, searching for a dog, any dog. He finds one and chases it, going 80 miles an hour until it bounds into a park. It’s a long night, though; Maynard’s got nowhere to stay. He lucks onto the family dog and nails it.
His wife doesn’t want to let him in, even when he holds up the dog, skinned, every bit of him engineered. Maynard wakes up Raymonde. He shows him his Jackie Chan moves and says Raymonde can do them too. To everyone’s surprise, Raymonde can. Something is very wrong.
The cops arrive, but they’re no match for the psycho skills of Maynard and Raymonde, and in the ensuing firefight, one of the cops turns out to be a robot.
The neighbors fall out, and they’re all familiar to Maynard; they’re his men. What’s clear is that they were all part of some army. Someone has been controlling them, messing with their memories. Some believe it, others think he’s nuts. Maynard regroups part of the old platoon to find out who’s doing it and why.
But one of the neighbors is transmitting pictures–a drone. Their plan is betrayed from the start.
The infiltration of the plant fails. Raymonde and the others are killed. It’s not a game anymore, the boss says. You don’t get up after you’re dead.
The secret, the boss shows Maynard, is SOFTWAR. The U.S. has been fighting and losing a ground war against China. They needed more soldiers than they had, so they had to build robots and send waves of them against the Chinese. Maynard’s platoon fought in the Battle of Sydney. And were victorious, heroes even. But the fighting took longer than they thought; the Chinese lost millions, and Maynard and his men died hundreds of times. Mentally they were thoroughly destroyed. This life on Long Island has been created for them as a reward. Everything is carefully controlled. Their jobs are meaningless, their wives and children drones. Why did Maynard want to ruin a good thing? He’s left him no choice.
It’s a beautiful Saturday in the neighborhood. Maynard’s mowing the lawn. Next door, Raymonde’s got the barbecue going. A ballgame’s on the radio. The neighbors wave as they go by.