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Screamers

by Glenn Erickson Jan 19, 2019

Screaming, flying ‘Autonomous Mobile Swords’ have decimated the enemy in a war on a far-off planet, but now the pesky smart weapons are self-evolving into ever more cruel and deadly new iterations. Peter Weller and Jennifer Rubin head a cast of desperate soldiers in this adaptation of an early story by Philip K. Dick — that perhaps addresses an aspect of the arms race? The show remains a cult favorite of fans of violent sci-fi adventures. Disc extras interview the filmmakers on Screamers’ decade-long path to the screen.


Screamers
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1995 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date January 29, 2019 / 29.99
Starring: Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin, Andrew Lauer, Charles Edwin Powell, Ron White, Michael Caloz.
Cinematography: Rodney Gibbons
Film Editor: Yves Langlois
Original Music: Normand Corbell
Written by Dan O’Bannon, Miguel Tejada-Flores
From the short story ‘Second Variety’ by Philip K. Dick
Produced by Charles W. Fries, Antony I. Ginnane, Franco Battista, Tom Berry
Directed by
Christian Duguay

 

I considered Screamers to be a must-see in 1995, because my editor friend Steven Nielson had gotten me hooked on the mind-stretching science fiction books of the visionary Philip K. Dick. I hoped that the film would be one of those Dick stories set on an off-world planet. The fact that it stars RoboCop’s Peter Weller didn’t hurt either.

The source story “Second Variety” hails from 1953; it ends up prefiguring ideas in Dick’s classic story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” written much later. The setting of the original story is a post-apocalyptic battlefield, not another planet. The basic concept begins by extrapolating the function of a military land mine, nasty mechanical-explosive traps that wait to blow up under unsuspecting troops. ‘Screamers,’ properly called ‘Autonomous Mobile Swords’ (in the story, ‘Claws’) 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 Robert Heinlein-like space war is underway between the ruling New Economic Bloc (NEB) and a rebellion that began as a worker grievance. A precious power source element was discovered on 6B, providing great wealth to the NEB. When mining operations released toxic radiations that harmed the miners and devastated the planet, NEB insisted that the mining go forth anyway. The notion of unending economic space wars also resembles the anarchic avant-garde West German sci-fi picture Der große Verhau (The Big Mess). 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 few Alliance troops left have no control over the Screamers, which have their own factories hidden below ground to maintain themselves and multiply their numbers. There’s been little contact with the enemy and precious communications with anybody for six months, although supplies have been coming through on schedule.

 

A small Alliance outpost led by Commander Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) receives a mysterious parlay request from the nearest NEB blockhouse. Also, a hologram transmission from Alliance headquarters says the war is ending because NEB has discovered another planet with the desired element where mining can be done safely. 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. The NEB bunker was wiped out when it was infiltrated by Davids. 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 follows the short story fairly closely but 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.

 

Through Scream Factory’s extras we discover that Screamers 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 of Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, the Invaders from Mars remake 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. Peter Weller nails his lines, even the ones that feel forced, mock-hardboiled. Near the end come a couple of romantic moments that Weller, Duguay and Jennifer Rubin pull off well. But the soldierly interaction in between is variable. Ms. Rubin and Andrew Lauer are mostly excellent, but each has their share of clunker scenes.

With the advent of big budget pictures like Predator, much of mainstream sci-fi soon devolved into action movies about people with guns running around playing hide’n’seek with monsters or robots or what-have-you. The most common setting for a post-’70s sci-fi is a cavernous disused factory left in the wake of America’s faltering manufacturing economy. Even Buckaroo Banzai bogs down when part of its climax is just a shoot-out in an old industrial building. Screamers is much more effective than the many Direct To Video productions of the 1990s. Excellent cinematography and well-integrated visual effects enrich the ‘lost patrol in space’ setup. Christian Duguay’s fluid direction helps, and impressive designs for the futuristic hardware and weapons insures that the movie never looks cheap.

 

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. The same drama-killing flaw appears, 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. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Creation of the Humanoids the question of genuine ‘humanness’ is the ONLY subject on the table, but here it’s just another unexamined ingredient in the soup. Screamers does try to address the 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, a pattern that would soon place a thousand VFX credits on a single movie. 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. Many of Farino’s illusions are very convincing.

Movies made from stories by Philip K. Dick often disappoint because they become melancholy and nihilistic, or just grotesque. Modern CGI makes it possible to finally envision screen versions of ‘unfilmable’ Dick classics like Ubik and The Three Stimata of Palmer Eldritch, but could anybody properly convey Dick’s strange, sometimes goofy weirdness? Screamers touches on the fear of runaway military technology — how many old war zones still kill children with leftover land mines? — 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 far 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 wide 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.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Screamers
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New interviews with director Christian Duguay, producer Tom Berry, co-writer Miguel Tejada-Flores and star Jennifer Rubin; Trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2019
(5908scre)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.