Because I was hooked on the mind-stretching science fiction books of the visionary Philip K. Dick, I was ready for 1995's Screamers to be a special sci-fi experience: Dick stories set on off-world planets were some of his best. The fact that it stars RoboCop's Peter Weller didn't hurt either.
Author Dick's source story "Second Variety" hails from 1953. Its setting is a post-apocalyptic battlefield, not another planet. The basic idea extrapolates the function of a military land mine, those nasty mechanical-explosive traps that wait to blow up under unsuspecting troops. Properly called 'Autonomous Mobile Swords' (in the story, 'Claws'), Screamers are small robotic anti-personnel devices with spinning blades that make piercing sounds. Unlike land mines, they roam at large looking for victims. They are completely self-sufficient -- they can't be defused, even by friendly troops. The only protection is a wrist-band transmitter that identifies the wearer as a non-enemy.
The movie shifts the action to the planet Sirius 6B, in the year 2078. A space war is underway between the ruling New Economic Bloc (NEB) and a worker rebellion. Ordinary soldiers are only pawns in an intergalactic clash of corporate interests. The much weaker rebel Alliance would have been easily destroyed, had they not deployed their murderously effective terror weapons, the Screamers. The few Alliance troops left do not control the Screamers, which have their own factories hidden below ground to maintain themselves and multiply their numbers.
A small Alliance outpost led by Commander Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) has had little contact with the enemy and precious communications with anybody for six months, although supplies have been coming through on schedule. Joe receives a mysterious parlay request from the nearest NEB blockhouse. A hologram transmission from Alliance headquarters says the war is ending soon, but a survivor of a crashed transport ship, 'Ace' Jefferson (Andrew Lauer) claims that the war is ongoing on the new planet as well. Joe and Ace hike over the half-frozen ruined terrain to negotiate with the NEB bunker. Along the way they pick up a helpless small boy named David, who has unaccountably survived (Michael Caloz). They discover only three surviving enemies at the NEB bunker. When defender Becker (Roy Dupuis) shoots David, Joe and Ace discover that the boy is not human, but a robot. He's an advanced, 'new variety' of Screamer. These new Screamers have basically won the war, wiping out almost all of the NEB bunkers. And there are more kinds of Screamers to be discovered. Along with Becker is a nervous soldier named Ross (Charles Powell) and the hard-drinking NEB officer Jessica Hanson (Jennifer Rubin), who takes an immediate liking to Joe. What nobody seems to realize is that the Screamers are expanding their role in the war, adapting to fight both sides of the human conflict... and beyond.
The ambitious Screamers adds all manner of extra background and detail. The setup of the planetary war requires quite a bit of exposition, including a tedious narrated text crawl, a la Star Wars. Couple that with the necessary explanations behind the various varieties of Screamers, and the characters do little but react as best they can to new threats -- against which almost no progress is ever made.
The show was in development for more than ten years, handed down through a succession of possible producing entities plagued by bankruptcies and legal tussles. Attached early on was writer Dan O'Bannon, the busy writer who wrote or contributed to a string of interesting projects: Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce and Total Recall. O'Bannion's screenplay was eventually re-written by Miguel Tejada-Flores, who is best known for Revenge of the Nerds; he's also one of 27 writers on The Lion King. As directed by ex-cinematographer Christian Duguay, the show has excellent atmosphere, but the tough-guy dialogue and performances occasionally falter. Only Peter Weller nails his lines, even the ones that feel forced, mock-hardboiled. Near the end come a couple of moving romantic moments between Weller and Jennifer Rubin.
The movie requires a lot of sophisticated special effects, most of which earn an A-minus for execution. The basic Screamers are little clockwork frisbees with saw-blade spinners; we don't see exactly how they dig-cruise their way underground, like sharks. But they're plenty scary -- several shots show them dismembering victims with lightning speed. The newly-evolved varieties of Screamers are less impressive. Little skeletal things work well enough; they're stop-motion beasties animated by the talented, quirky Brothers Chiodo.
Later Screamers that imitate humans weigh the story down with ideas already tapped in the more interesting Blade Runner. We get the same drama-killing flaw that was first seen in the original Alien: as soon as it became possible to manufacture robots difficult to distinguish from live humans, EVERYBODY would be a suspect robot. On meeting anybody new, the first social and practical priority would be to determine who is and who isn't really flesh & blood. Screamers tries to address this issue, when one human gets shot by mistake. But there's no discussion of the ins and outs of synthetic humans, just a series of sudden 'identity surprises.' If rocks can really be bugs and a little kid can really be a robot, even these soldiers wouldn't take anything for granted. Fans of Blade Runner will leapfrog this pattern and easily guess the story's ending.
Visual Effects supervisor Ernest D. Farino coordinates the input of a number of companies and individuals. 1995 is fairly early for digital effects, and considering Screamers' limited resources, the results are mostly excellent. The many fine matte paintings (Deak Ferrand?) and composite shots look weak only when the designs aren't good, as with a wide shot of a campfire in a nighttime landscape. Some of the more cartoonish images, such as a view of a body being burned up in a rocket blast, would likely not convince no matter how they were achieved. But three or four set-piece scenes are so convincing that we cannot tell what was built full-scale, what is miniature and what is computer generated: giant doors, complex machines, an impressive escape rocket.
Philip K. Dick stories often disappoint when adapted to the screen -- they can become melancholy and nihilistic, or just grotesque. Modern CGI makes it possible to envision screen versions of formerly 'unfilmable' Dick classics like Ubik and The Three Stimata of Palmer Eldritch, but could any film properly convey Dick's strange, sometimes goofy weirdness? Screamers touches on the fear of runaway military technology -- how many leftover land mines in old war zones still kill children? -- but mostly delivers standard 'men with guns' tension. The depressing 'Total Downer' revelations at the climax are lightened by some warmer, positive moments. Considering its fragmented development history, Screamers turned out rather well, and deserves its marginal cult status.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Screamers is a very good encoding. The show looks much better than the old Cable TV and VHS transfers. True, the fine text in that opening crawl does chatter a bit, but I saw no flaws in the show itself. The audio track has a steep volume difference between dialogue and the Screamer noises, but even taking that into account, a couple of scenes seemed rather too quiet.
Director Duguay, actress Rubin, producer Tom Berry and co-writer Tejada-Flores are each given interviews of twenty minutes or so. Duguay and Rubin relate full career stories -- Ms. Rubin, I've discovered, played 'The Wasp Woman' in the 1995 Concorde-New Horizons TV movie remake. The producer and writer tax their memories to explain the long and tortured path to the screen taken by Screamers -- a much repeated phrase is, 'it had to be pried away from a bankrupt company.'
None of the advertising artwork for Screamers was particularly inspiring ... Scream gives us two choices with a reversible jacket.
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson