The scribblings of Phillip K. Dick has given the world – and by extension, cinema – some of the most fertile concepts you could ask for thanks to the author’s grasp of paranoia infused science fiction that blurred the lines of what it means to be human in the face of such obstacles such as reality thwarting drugs and technology and replicant androids straining to obtain a soul. Some of the gems gleaned from his work have included Ridley Scott’s rain drenched Blade Runner, Paul Verhoven’s blood drenched Total Recall and and the rich mixture of moral conundrum and jetpack fights that came with Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report; but what of those adaptions that didn’t come with world class directors involved?
This is an excuse to drag Screamers into the spotlight, a 1995 Canadian-American production that attempted to adapt Dick’s 1953 short story Second Variety to the screen.
The year is 2078 and we are into the 10th year of a catastrophic war that’s been raging on the mining planet of Sirius 6B between the powerful corporation known as the New Economic Block and the rebelling group of miners and scientists The Alliance that has rendered the entire world as toxic and inhospitable as a rough area of Liverpool on a Saturday night. In an attempt to keep up with the might of the NEB, the Alliance has created razor sharp, robotic critters called Autonomous Mobile Swords (and dubbed the far more catchy “Screamers”) who burrow beneath the poisonous dirt and slice up NEB troops like baloney at the local deli.
After a decade of war, there seems to be hope in sight in the form of a truce and world weary commanding officer Joe Hendricksson surmises that the best course of action is to accept the offers so that everyone can finally go home and live a life without war and the need to obliterate enemies with shrieking robot chainsaws. However, after an Alliance troop carrier crashes on route, the only survivor, rookie private “Ace” Jefferson” makes a bold claim that the reports of a truce are nothing more than bullshit and that a massive trick is being pulled, so Hendricksson and Jefferson head out into the wasteland to stage a meeting with NEB command to find out exactly what is going on.
After coming into contact with a young boy hiding in the ruins of a ruined city, Hendricksson discovers a bowel-loosening fact after a ragtag trio of NEB soldiers open fire on the child to reveal his made of wires, machinery and some familiar looking blades. It seems that the Screamers have been busy little bees, replicating and upgrading themselves from tunneling buzzsaws, to killing machines masquerading as human beings in order to first break their programming and then break their human creators. Forging an uneasy alliance with the NEB survivors, the group tries to return home, but a worrying detail surfaces – if the Screamers can now pass as human, how do we know that any of the people Hedricksson is partnered with is actually who they say they are?
Essentially a curious melding of Terminator: Salvation and The Thing, Screamers could have been quite a cool, scrappy, low budget answer to the lavish, big budget attempts to wrestle Philip K. Dick’s weighty ideas into reality, however, despite featuring a original script (eventually rewritten) by Dan O’Bannon, Screamers exchanges a tight narrative for random twists that leave the plot hanging looser than an octogenarian’s scrotum.
In an effort to keep things as unpredictable as it can, instead of scripting things as tight as it can, the filmmakers simply just omits stuff that’s actually quite important when making any of this guff even remotely believable. We’re never told exactly how or why the Screamers have decided to turn on humans, or even how they’ve managed to upgrade their very nature in the first place and so their sudden switch from looking like the hellish love child of a bandsaw and an armadillo to resembling cuisinart-mouthed murder-moppet during an unclear timeline turns out to be quite the quantum leap in advanced robotics and ultimately comes across as about as feasible as a three pound coin. Not aiding things a jot is the fact that the film cheats all the time to keep its shock reveals, ditching all of its established rules just in the hope that the audience will pop a cheap wow when yet another random character reveals themself to have a torso made of metal doohickies instead of a digestinal tract. Why do the third generation Screamers (the child ones who all look the same) seem to be way less sophisticated than the adult-shaped second generation who come in many guises, quote Shakespeare and desires to reveal themselves at totally random times when they could have murdered the human’s they’re with at any given time? The movie even has the nerve to throw in a totally unearned, robot-learns-how-to-love trope that totally comes out of left field and is less likely to provoke musings of the true nature of humanity and more likely to have you yell “oh, fuck off!” in frustration directly at the screen.
Elsewhere, the movie crams in other random sci-fi ideas that feel equally half-baked; corporations waging literal war on their rebelling employees screams the lack of a good union in the future and in order to negate the radiation poisoning hanging in the air, people have to periodically puff on special, red cigarettes (“I can’t believe you have to put this shit in your lungs to neutralise the shit in your lungs.”) – but Screamers is still one of those movies where the time period is distant enough for people not be used to stuff like classical music, but still use contemporary era slang.
Making things probably more palatable than they deserve is the anvile-heavy tones of Peter Weller, a man more than a little familiar with the world of thinking machines thanks to the time he spent stomping around in Robocop’s clunky, metal carapace and he chews on the overcooked dialogue like it’s a cheap steak, spitting random “goddamns” into almost every sentence like random gunfire. Joining him and doing the best she can with an insanely thankless role is the familiar face of cult actress Jennifer Rubin – she of the vertical hairstyle in the third Nightmare On Elm Street – but her welcome appearance is neutered by some of the most forced character development you could imagine.
While the movie manages to pull out the occasion banger of a scene (an assault of the child Screamers getting laid low by gunfire and flames is actually pretty sweet), it remains weighed down by numerous lazy choices that results in one of the most unintentionally hilarious twist endings you’ll ever see than involves the future of mankind put in jeopardy thanks to the Screamer’s secret weapon – a fucking teddy bear.
A lot of the famous author’s work have been translated on screen over the years to become something legitimately something special – Screamers on the other hand simply doesn’t do Dick…