Screamers (1995)

D: Christian Duguay
S: Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin

Not bad sci fi yarn based upon a short story by Philip K. Dick ("Second Variety") and therefore providing the requisite conceptual richness and some fascinating plot possibilities which are not entirely capitalised upon by the filmmakers. Dick's work has been notoriously difficult to transfer to the screen, but it has resulted in some curious hybrids (Blade Runner, Total Recall) of his mindbending meditations upon humankind and more conventional generic action. The case in point is a pleasingly low-key affair, focusing on the events which transpire on a distant world where the forces of industrial progress and environmental preservation have been involved in a long and bloody war which seems near its end. The decisive weapon has been a group of underground-dwelling robots which are an avowed reinvention of one of man's oldest weapons: the sword. These machines, called 'screamers', which build themselves, consist mostly of spinning saw blades (which 'scream'), and are capable of locking onto human targets overground and dispatching them with vicious efficiency. When base commander Peter Weller receives an offer of peace from the other side, he must journey across the battle-scarred wasteland for the negotiations, but all is not well, and the screamers seem to be developing a mind of their own...

There are some interesting ideas floating around here, and the film has a nice look and feel which director Christian Duguay (Scanners II, etc.) trusts well enough to keep the big action scenes to a minimum. Some of the dialogue is clumsy and clichéd, but Dickian ideas about human motivations and the fear of losing one's humanity are ever present, and keep things relatively interesting. The exposition is handled well, with the gradual evolution of the screamers proving the most interesting element of the plot. Weller's concern with what man has done to the world, while important, is done little justice by the rather pat dialogue he is given to speak. Thankfully though we are continually exposed to the environment itself: snow capped valleys in sandy deserts with ruined cities and armoured bunkers nestled against the hills with a distant, tortured sky behind them, and to the necessities of survival: anti-radiation cigarettes which "put shit in your lungs to keep the shit out of your lungs", the peculiar bracelets worn to ward off the screamers; and this speaks more eloquently than the characters do.

The film does descend into a series of silly twists and punch-ups in its final third. The hidden motivations of various characters become more apparent as new information comes to light, and there are many twists and turns which set up all kinds of physical action for which less cerebral viewers will probably have been rooting. It becomes somewhat routine at this stage, if not preposterous, and there is a final visual stinger which is unfortunately laughable and best forgotten entirely. The plot and themes do work themselves out through all of this, and the film does add up to an at least interesting genre entry. It is difficult, as always, to say that it could have been something more than it is, because we have to accept such films on their own terms. We might conclude that it is not quite what Dick might have envisioned, but then neither was Total Recall (mind you, the story upon which that film was based ("We Can Remember it for you Wholesale") was so bizarre that it was probably just as well that it was not a literal adaptation). There are some exciting moments, and with the benefit of its production design and cinematography, even some eerie scenes (such as the one where Weller and his team explore the ruins of an enemy base infested by screamers which is occasionally reminiscent of Village of the Damned and the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it does stick in the memory. It is not necessarily recommended to casual viewers, but genre fans will probably enjoy it, and it is worth a peek if you are that way inclined.


Interestingly, elements of this premise were later recycled in Mimic and Virus.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.