When Keith and I were in the pub yesterday doing our Prometheus post-mortem, he suggested this movie for today’s column. He cited it as an example of a sci-fi movie committing to its Big Ideas instead of drowning them in spectacle and shoddy decisions and hoping nobody would notice (sorry Ridley, but you kinda did). I remember this flick getting its original albeit limited cinema run but I was only 15 then, and it was rated 18. I couldn’t face the potential embarrassment of being turned away. And after that awkwardly autobiographical admission, on with the show.
Baby nukes look like fun.
On the planet Sirius 6B, in the year 2078, a war is happening. A war fought between the New Economic Bloc and a resistance movement calling itself The Alliance, over the mining of a substance intended to solve Earth’s energy crisis. In the early days of this war, The Alliance scientists created devices called Autonomous Mobile Swords. These self-replicating automatic weapons roam the wastelands of Sirius 6B attacking whatever they come across. They have been nicknamed “Screamers” due to the high-pitched, metallic, wailing noise they produce just before they attack. Both sides have been years without any real support or reinforcement from Earth, and have retreated to an unofficial ceasefire. One day, out of the blue, a NEB soldier delivers an invitation for two Alliance officers to attend the NEB base for peace negotiations. Wacky hijinks ensue.
Based on Phillip K Dick’s 1953 short story Second Variety, this Canadian film from 1995 is both an effective chiller that touches on some interesting ideas about evolution and identity, and a clichéd shaggy-dog story with more holes than my collection of old socks. The fact that it is both of these things often within the same scene is, I think you’ll agree, an accomplishment in itself. Peter Weller is the anchor to all this craziness as Alliance commanding officer Col. Hendricksson. His wry and mostly unfazed demeanour is in stark relief to his rookie companion’s inexperience, and he is totally believable as a long-standing leader of this rag-tag troop. Jennifer (Transmorphers 2) Rubin and Roy Dupuis – star of the 90s’ La Femme Nikita series – are good too as a black market privateer and Hendricksson’s NEB counterpart, respectively. Special mention must also be made of Dupuis’ frankly glorious feathered bouffant. It’s the full-Swayze hairstyle of choice for the soldier-about-town in the late 21st century.
This film has suffered in the same way as Disney’s recent money pit John Carter: both were based on an influential source material, but both were made long after that source material influenced so many other, more famous works. Of course that wasn’t John Carter‘s only problem, but I’ll not get into that here. In Screamers’ case, we’re looking at such revered movies as Alien* (and, in one memorable scene, Aliens), The Thing and Terminator in particular, though you could probably find echoes of plenty more. While there have been some changes made to both the setting and the plot, the basic skeleton of the story was written 26 years before the earliest of these films I have mentioned. Of course I can’t say that Dick wasn’t influenced by an even earlier story, but deriding Screamers for being derivative of all these others is arguably both unfair and disingenuous.
Director Christian Duguay and his crew have gone the Doctor Who route when it comes to creating a barren wasteland: a visit to the nearest disused quarry. By blasting out all the colours and adding some good matte backgrounds, combined with real locations such as Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for the interior of the NEB command post, they have given the film an expansiveness that belies its limited budget. The multi-level, underground bunker set is particularly impressive. On a smaller level, the Screamers are great little beasties. Brought to life using old-school stop-motion animation by The Chiodo Brothers (of Killer Klowns From Outer Space fame) the type 1 variety are a wonderful design, like a mini dinosaur crossed with Robot Wars.
Overall, Screamers is ambitious but flawed. The growing sense of paranoia that develops as we learn more about what the Screamers themselves have been getting up to in their automated, self-run production facility is deftly handled through the second act, and the big confrontation with the Screamer army at the climax is nice and creepy, but the final 20 minutes or so feel like they belong in a different movie. It’s a Lord of the Rings ending, frankly; the battle is done, the survivors are nursing their wounds, you think everything’s over. And then they get up and start walking for a quarter of an hour before a deus ex machina escape route appears. I know it is kind of faithful to Dick’s story, but here it just feels tacked on, like a reshoot after some test screenings or something. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it does defang it more than a little. What could have been nicely ambiguous ends up spelled out and verging on trite. Despite my misgivings though, I still can’t discount the film. In these times of corporate armies, automated weaponry, and prolonged wars fought over natural resources, Screamers seems almost prescient. But then it wouldn’t be a Phillip K Dick story otherwise, would it?
*Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon is credited as a co-writer in consideration of the early drafts he worked on back in the 80s. How much of the final film is his, I have no idea.