“Robocop’s” Peter Weller headlines “Screamers” as Hendricksson, the burnt out commanding officer of a futuristic military faction called the Alliance. Hendricksson and his men have been fighting a war against the rival N.E.B. soldiers on an isolated mining planet for the last 10 years. During the war, the Alliance had built fast-moving androids with buzz saws attached for lethal effect and unleashed them on the planet. Called screamers, the androids burrow through the ground to attack anything with a pulse. But the screamers have run amok, and now attack anything and everything, including Alliance soldiers.
Hendricksson soon realizes that the corporations back on Earth have given them up for dead. The war, it seems, has moved onto a new mining planet. Determined to get the hell out of Dodge, Hendricksson accepts an offer of alliance with the N.E.B.s and proceeds to the enemy camp with rookie Ace Jefferson (Andrew Lauer). But upon reaching the N.E.B. base, Hendricksson discovers that all of the N.E.B. soldiers are dead — except for two, the psychotic Becker and the paranoid Ross, who are joined by a civilian name Jessica (Jennifer Rubin). Oh, and those pesky screamers have now evolved into human screamers!
Despite its obvious ambitions, 1995’s “Screamers” could never break away from its B-Movie vibe and limited budget. The film could have been more than what made it onto the screen, and I suspect the screenplay is probably more than its many shrieking buzz saw robots. The movie itself is based on a short story by prolific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, who has been responsible for some inspired sci-fi movie adaptations including “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”, and had two of his short stories adapted into movies in 2002 alone (“Impostor” and “Minority Report”).
One of the biggest problems with “Screamers” is the near absence of a likeable character, or at least someone who we actually give a damn about escaping those slice-and-dice robots. Except for Jennifer Rubin’s Jessica, the rest of the cast could all get decapitated and no one would care. And even Jessica, who harbors a dark secret, becomes a moot point because… Well, I won’t reveal the film’s big twist, but if you pay close enough attention to the way director Christian Duguay (“Art of War”) frames various scenes, you’ll be able to guess the twist before it comes.
The screenplay for “Screamers” shows some promise as a Cautionary Tale about the uselessness of war and corporate entanglements, but I was too busy noticing the film’s many cheap matte background paintings to pay attention. In any case, the people delivering snippets of the Cautionary Tale are so unlikable I wouldn’t have cared what they were saying anyway. Who are these jerks to tell me about the black hearts of humanity when they prove to be even more soulless than those shiny screamers?
As a straight sci-fi film, “Screamers” has enough plot holes in it to bury a hundred screamers. The entire problem, not surprisingly, involves the presence (or in some cases, sudden lack of presence) of the screamers themselves. At one moment Duguay is giving us the impression that the screamers are everywhere, and the next moment our characters are out in the open after being knocked unconscious by a blast and many hours later wake up with all their limbs intact. How nice of those underground-burrowing screamers not bother them while they were all unconscious.
That doesn’t mean “Screamers” is all bad. At one point a new type of screamers that comes in the form of young boys called “Davids” stalk the characters. The Davids move freely around the devasted cities waiting to entrap unknowing victims with their innocence. The fact that the Davids carry a ragged teddy bear with them at all times, and keep repeating, “Can I come with you?” over and over, makes them extremely creepy. By comparison, the screamers that race back and forth under the ground only to leap up at their victims are just plain silly.
As the lead, Peter Weller plays his character as an educated man, which I took to be the case since he listens to Mozart and quotes Shakespeare. Although I have to wonder if Hendricksson is so smart why did he bring the wet-behind-the-ears Jefferson along on such an important mission? Besides being unable to shut up, Jefferson is obsessed with a pair of VR goggles and CD player, both of which nearly gets him killed on multiple occasions. Also I have to wonder why Jefferson, a gung-ho soldier, would put on earphones and crank up his music while he and Hendricksson are walking through a field full of screamers just waiting to slice off their heads. Is this kid really this thickheaded? The answer is Yes.
Like a lot of B-movies, sometimes the budget for “Screamers” really shows. The movie takes place in a bunker, in the desert, and what looks like a refinery plant. There are no big spectacular action sequences, but instead there are a couple of gun battles and one big explosion involving something called a Pluto bomb. Actually, the film’s most impressive special effects is a completely CGI trip through space at the beginning of the movie.
There’s no doubt “Screamers” could have been a lot better than it is. The whole sequence at the refinery is the best of the movie, managing to elicit both a couple of scare scenes and a lot of creepiness. The rest, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to that middle section.
Christian Duguay (director) / Philip K. Dick (short story Second Variety), Dan O’Bannon, Miguel Tejada-Flores (screenplay)
CAST: Peter Weller …. Hendricksson
Roy Dupuis …. Becker
Jennifer Rubin …. Jessica
Andrew Lauer …. Ace Jefferson