Underappreciated movies: Screamers

Martin calls out to a quality mix of Peter Weller, Dan O'Bannon, Philip K Dick, horror and action. It's Screamers..


If Black & Decker decided to back a remake of Tremors, the result might be not dissimilar to Christian Duguay’s 1995 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story Second Variety. The eponymous creatures are sentient buzz-saws that wander the radiation-ravaged planet Sirius 6B like moles, looking for opportunities to leap up out of the ground and slice someone into tiny pieces. They’ll back off if you’re wearing a special bracelet that marks you out as a ‘friendly’, but wouldn’t you just know it, lately those bracelets don’t seem to be working anymore…

The year is 2078, and the miners on Sirius 6B have gone to war with their former masters, the New Economic Block (NEB) over their reluctance to keep exposing themselves to the radioactive side-effects of mining the precious byranium ore on which the galactic economy depends. The planet’s once-prosperous cities are now bombed-out wastelands, and the rebel miners holed up in an underground bunker under the military leadership of the laconic and cynical Hendricksson (Peter Weller).One day the military monotony is broken by the unprecedented approach of an NEB messenger, who is immediately sliced to pieces by the screamers that guard the rebel base, and who turns out to have been bearing an invitation to the enemy base for peace talks, mystifying Hendricksson.

When a rebel troop-carrier crash-lands on Sirius B, Hendricksson learns from the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers grunt Private Jefferson (Andrew Lauer) that the base has been fed misinformation about the true state of the distant war for years – the rebels have lost, with the feuding factions left to amuse themselves on Sirius 6B rather than return to Earth and start telling grisly war-stories.

Outraged at the callousness, Hendricksson sets off for the NEB base on a peace-making mission, with the incredulous Jefferson. This long and dangerous trek takes the pair through semi-industrial, war-ravaged tundra infested with screamers that seem disinclined to recognise them as ‘friendly’, and here they pick up an orphaned boy hiding out in the wreckage with his teddy bear.

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As soon as the soldiers are in sight of the enemy subterranean encampment, the NEB soldiers shoot the boy to pieces, revealing the internal mechanisms: this was a ‘type 3’ screamer, evolved by the mechanoids themselves in the deep underground laboratories that rebel scientists set up and abandoned years ago, designed to attach themselves to sympathetic troops to gain access to military bases and unleash havoc.

Hendricksson and Jefferson are escorted into the NEB base by the double-Y chromosomed Becker (Roy DuPuis) and fidgety nutcase Ross (Charles Powell), where they are introduced to glamorous black marketeer Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), and the shocking knowledge that the screamers have evolved beyond all recognition – and all sense of loyalty.

But if the ground-dwelling buzz-saws are ‘type 1’ screamers, and the abandoned boy is a ‘type 3’…what does a ‘type 2’ look like? The motley band begin to eye eachother with suspicion…

Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores treat Dick’s source material more reverentially than any other PKD-based/inspired movie, with the result that the density of back-story regarding the complex war between the rebel alliance and the New Economic Block can make the film initially unapproachable for anyone but a sci-fi nut. Unfortunately, after the violent and shocking opening, the rest of the first act is taken up with slow-paced, dialogue-based exposition of this background. This gives us a chance to know and care about Weller’s character, but constitutes a little more ‘down-time’ than the initial grue has earned, and also sets up the back-story of Hendricksson’s lost family life on Earth, which, confusingly, is never paid off in the remainder of the film.

Things liven up considerably when the walk through the wasteland begins to the funky strains of the ‘classic’ 20th-century music on Jefferson’s walkman/ipod. The Quebec semi-industrial ‘wasteland’ locations have been a bit over-used since Screamers was filmed, but remain eerily effective in the snow, and this is one of the most atmospheric sequences ever seen in relatively low-budget science-fiction.

Screamers offers inventive comic and novelty touches that are absent in Second Variety: the red-tinted cigarettes that prevent radiation-induced cancer on Sirius 6B firmly flip the bird at political correctness, whilst the hallucinatory output of Jefferson’s 3D-visualising headphones resemble iTunes visualisations, but with a pornographic aspect.

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In Second Variety, the first-generation robot sentinels are called ‘mobile saws’, and the appellation ‘screamer’ seems to have been nicked wholesale from the thematically similar Harlan Ellison opus A Boy And His Dog (1971). The effect of the high-pitched attack-sound of the cybernetic nasties is particularly redolent of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1978) when employed by the humanoid screamers.

But the most fun is to be had from the bloodthirsty rotary-saws themselves, particularly in a sequence that eschews CGI for first-class stop-motion work, as a type 1 screamer ambles up to a charging socket in the NEB base to replenish itself before attacking Weller and his new colleagues.

This sequence is shortly followed by one of the most alarming prosthetic transformations since Rob Bottin ‘wolfed’ Robert Picardo out in The Howling (1981) – the ‘orphan’ type 2 robot approaches Peter Weller in the darkness of the NEB canteen and, recognising a potential kill, ‘unmasks’, its cherubic face transforming into a nightmarish canvas of cutlery and triple-toothed menace, all the more effective because –unlike Bottin’s showcase work- it is not dwelt upon at all.

With its remote and damned locations and a collection of disparate and often unlikable characters, all suspicious that their colleagues may be lethal undercover robots, comparisons with John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing are inevitable, but not to the detriment of the plot, with tension remaining high, and defused by a sense of humour little-developed or desired in Carpenter’s piece.

Weller is on the best form he has ever been in here, given more scope to emote and spit out dry one-liners than in the likes of Robocop or Blue Jean Cop, and is ably supported by a suitably dopey Lauer as the green-as-grass Jefferson. Jennifer Rubin is an able and ambiguous female interest who – after the obligatory pointless nudity – rises to the hardened tone of her character, whilst Charles Powell makes a delightfully neurotic Ross, whose nervous repetition convinces his friends that he must be a robot. Nikita principal Roy DuPuis is a credible antagonist and anti-hero, but hampered by clunky dialogue and mannerisms.

Screamers emerges from a period (the 90s) when many chances were being taken with science-fiction movies, and it’s a rare pleasure to see a sci-fi flick stay this perilously close to its dense source material and still come out as an entertaining horror-actioner.

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