Thursday, February 14, 2008

Screamers (USA, 1995)

(Spoilers) Based on Philip K. Dick's short story Second Variety, Screamers is an oft but unjustly maligned low budget science fiction film that is far better video fodder than many a movie with ten times its budget. Director Christian Duguay manages once again to transcend both his script and his actors and deliver a film that is both entertaining and, in total, greater than its parts.
Peter Weller, best remembered for being a lousy actor, surprises by doing another one of his periodic good acting turns, this time as the film's cynical hero Hendrickson. True, his emotional emoting is as wooden ever, but the rest of the time he is both convincing and likable. Screamers is definitely one of his less embarrassing genre entries, miles above Of Unknown Origin (1983), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984) or Naked Lunch (1991) but not quiet up there with RoboCop (1987) — more like a bit better than Leviathan (1989), a highly entertaining low budget Alien-under-the-water C film. As Jessica, Jennifer Rubin is pleasant to watch, even if she never does show enough skin. Odd that her career has never gone anywhere: not only has she not made a film since 2001, her only other truly memorable role is still her first, that of the ex-junkie who dies from a fistful of needles in her arm in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Simpatico number three is Ace Jefferson (Andy Lauer), who plays the sole surviving soldier of the crashed spaceship at the beginning of the film.
The core idea of Screamers is one that is a favorite in the Star Trek spin-offs of the late 80s and 90s, that of technology developing beyond itself. In The Next Generation, there is Data and the occasional single episode entity like Dr. Moriarty or pipe cleaning robots, in Voyager there is the Doctor, and in Screamers there are the screamers, little robots with built-in circular saws created to hunt and kill. Throw in a little Shakespeare and the theme of futility of war, add a bunch of inhuman killer kids ala The Brood (1979) or Village of the Damned (1960/1993) and let it all loose on a war torn,
dead planet full of cavernous, underground compounds and you got one little nifty B-film.
The action transpires in 2078 on the distant planet of Sirus 6B, where a never ending war has been going on for much too long, the planet long since having become a desolate hell. After victim number one gets shredded by a screamer and a big spaceship crashes, Hendrickson decides to investigate if the shredded delivery boy was actually delivering a peace message or not, and leaves for the long trek to the enemy compound with the Ace Jefferson in tow. Once there, they hook up with what seems to be the last three survivors in the compound and discover that the screamers have evolved into self-replicating humanoid killers still bent on killing humans. To paraphrase what one screamer says late in the film, "We can laugh, we can cry, we can bleed — we can fuck."
By the end of Screamers everyone but Hendrickson is dead, and though he leaves the planet on an emergency shuttle, it is made more than clear that he won't be reaching earth in one piece. The ending has often been castigated as being a cheap and easy lead-in for an eventual sequel, but it can also be construed on a much different level, especially since in modern Hollywood practice, no lead-in is needed for a sequel. The inferred inevitable death of Hendrickson after what seems like a semi-happy end merely underscores the cynical, depressing anti-war attitude that needles its way throughout what is otherwise basically a sci-fi shoot 'em up film. It serves less to lead in to a possible sequel than simply underline the film's minimal thematic justification.
The special effects were top notch at the time, especially for the film's budget, but some of them have aged badly. The story has some big holes in its development, plot and logic, but the acting is good, atmosphere excellent, characterization instantaneous but rounded, and the action well choreographed.
Watch this baby — you'll probably like it. I know I did.

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