Directed by Christian Duguay.
Starring Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin, Andrew Lauer, and Liliana Komorowska.
On a war-ravaged mining planet Alliance scientists have created self-replicating killing machines known as ‘screamers’ to eliminate their NEB enemies.
In the far off future of 2078, on the mining planet of Sirius 6B, there is a war raging between a group of former miners and scientists known as The Alliance, and another group of miners known as NEB (New Economic Bloc) as both parties fight over the mining of a substance that will ensure the survival of the Earth. Mining this substance has resulted in radiation-based deaths amongst the miners, hence the war between miners and unions. To help alleviate the problem scientists from The Alliance created ‘Autonomous Mobile Swords’ – or screamers, to give them their nickname – to target and kill NEB operatives.
Screamers are bladed hunting weapons that dig their way through the ground with huge circular saws, homing in on the heartbeats of their potential victims. So far the NEB operatives have been wearing special tabs that cancel out their heartbeat signals but an NEB soldier gets killed by a screamer – so called because of the high-pitch noise they make when they attack – whilst trying to deliver a message about a truce, causing Alliance commanding officer Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller – RoboCop) to investigate by going deep into enemy territory and facing not only the potential enemy of the NEB but also the new breed of screamers that have taken on human form and do not seem to be able to read the tabs that should be protecting him.
Sounds like the plot to a Philip K. Dick story, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, meaning that Screamers – based on his short story Second Variety – sits alongside Total Recall, Blade Runner and Minority Report as another behemoth of dystopian sci-fi adapted to the screen to forever be immortalised as a cult favourite. However, there are distinct differences, mainly – but not exclusively – in the budget department, between this movie and those mentioned that hold Screamers back and have (so far) stopped it achieving the cult status of other Philip K. Dick adaptations.
To begin with, the casting is pretty good; Peter Weller shows he can do the gruff (anti) hero thing just as well as Michael Biehn, Kurt Russell or any other charismatic action actor of the day that wasn’t Schwarzenegger or Stallone. He may have already cut his teeth in RoboCop but here he gets to do a bit more and prove he can lead a cast, although Joe Hendricksson is pretty thinly written as a character and not very likeable so it is up to Weller to make him at least a bit more engaging than how he was written. Jennifer Rubin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) plays a major role as Jessica Hanson, a black market trader who Hendricksson encounters and who helps him get to where he needs to be, and she fills in the gaps that Weller doesn’t, the pair of them creating a fairly decent partnership that you want to follow until the end of the film.
The trouble is that the end of the film is a long time coming thanks to a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes that tell you what is happening or has happened but you are never really shown very much. The screamers themselves make for an interesting concept but who is making them? Where are they being made? Why make them look like miniature skeletal reptiles when infiltration from the beginning would have been a better idea? This film throws up a lot of questions with very few answers.
The real answer, of course, is the limiting $20,000,000 budget that will pay for your cast, crew and location shooting but doesn’t leave enough to make convincing matte paintings, CGI backgrounds or in-camera effects (although the severed limbs caused by the screamers look pretty good), meaning that the superimposed screamers and extremely cheap fire effects look terrible on Blu-ray; to be honest, they didn’t look too clever on VHS but the HD clean up means that every join can be seen and it does take you out of the film, especially if you have just had a nice wide shot of one of the gorgeous desert landscapes that doesn’t look overly false, and it cheapens the overall experience.
With obvious nods to Aliens and Blade Runner with its themes of soldiers against an enemy they don’t really understand and a paranoid sense of not knowing who is who, Screamers is a movie that has ideas and wants to be seen as being as intelligent as the films it pays homage to but despite the best attempts of the cast to take it seriously the limitations presented by the budget and the clichéd writing sap a lot of the life out of it. However, when it does get going and the bullets start flying Screamers gets to be quite enjoyable although it never really keeps that momentum going, coming in fits and starts and throwing you one red herring after another until the frustrating and obvious climax. Coming backed with cast and crew interviews, an audio commentary by critic Kevin Lyons and a limited edition booklet featuring writing about the works of Philip K. Dick, Screamers is the sort of title that fits in 101 Films’ Black Label collection very well and for collectors and fans this disc will be an essential purchase regardless, but viewed as a movie on its own it does feel a bit like the cheap B-movie version of better sci-fi movies, with a few things about it to like and a lot of things you just have to tolerate.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★