“Priority 7. That’s you and me. And God, if he’s still paying attention.”
“I doubt it.”
There’s a special recipe that results in exactly the right kind of B-movie. It’s fairly simple, and yet, films so often get it wrong. Two parts snappy dialogue, a cup of creativity in the face of a limited budget, one pound of quality, beefy character actors giving their all, and bake it in a story that leaves you guessing as to where it’s going and who is going to die.
I had heard good things about Screamers. It received largely negative reviews when it was first released, but it’s since developed a solid cult following. Going in, I hoped for something along the lines of Pitch Black – a tightly written, creatively directed, but not necessarily original scare-fest that would make me smile. While it’s not quite Pitch Black – it’s a bit more Van Damme’s Cyborg than Vin Diesel’s franchise-starting horror film – it’s still very much worth seeing, and it tastes very much of that delicious B-movie recipe that I love.
Peter Weller, aka RoboCop, akaThe Man
Based on the story Second Variety by Philip K. Dick, the plot of Screamers is fairly convoluted, but I’ll try to throw together a synopsis. On the planet SIRIUS 6B in the year 2078, Col. Hendricksson (Peter Weller) is the commander of a small group of Alliance soldiers. The Alliance was formed to fight back against the NEB, or New Economic Bloc, which wants to keep mining toxic minerals at any cost. This war has destroyed the land and killed vast swaths of the population, leaving a wasteland behind. The Alliance, in an effort to win the war, develop a self-replicating, autonomous hunter-killer machine called, AMS, or Autonomous Mobile Swords – basically robots with weaponry that leap out of hiding places and chew your face off. In an attempt to further peace, Col. Hendricksson undertakes a journey across the blasted wastes to meet with the remnants of the NEB on SIRIUS 6B to negotiate a treaty. Along the way, he learns that the AMS have advanced far beyond their original capabilities and have plans of their own.
SIRIUS 6B or just outside of Montreal, Quebec in the winter?
Phew. I’m not sure that entirely covers the rough plot of Screamers, but that’s the best I can do. Like I said, convoluted. The good news is that the film hashes it all out quickly, and from there on it’s just a fun sci-fi horror adventure. Director Christian Duguay pulls good performances from his actors – Weller is particularly excellent, and makes me feel his absence from film (barring 2013s return to the screen, Star Trek: Into Darkness) all the more. Despite the low budget, the film looks great at times and makes good use of beautiful matte paintings to fill in some stunning wide shots – this movie is an overflowing toxic waste vat of cheap post-apocalyptica. Yes, some of the hair is pretty bad, the costumes can look a little silly, there’s far too many cheesy Oakley M-Frames, the CG is not great, and Andrew Lauer is miscast as a hard-nosed marine. Still, this is a fun, sometimes gory sci-fi horror film with some great dialog and a smart story scripted by genre legend Dan O’Bannon. There’s some clunker lines here and there, but overall, it works and has a nice hardboiled feel. Locations feel lonely, and our band of heroes always feels vulnerable, one step from being at each other’s throats or finding themselves facing a leaping screamer.
One particular brand of screamer. Kind of reminds me of Robotix.
Given the story’s P.K. Dick roots, it would be remiss of me not to discuss the particularly P.K. Dick elements. While the nature of consciousness and identity are nowhere near as well done as they are in Blade Runner, nor are the paranoia elements particularly effective, they are here, and they add tension and a modicum of intelligence to all the popcorn-munching fun. Who is human and who a screamer? The film never lets itself get too bogged down in philosophy or bleakness and maintains a sense of humour throughout.
Oakley is still making ugly sunglasses in 2078
If you’re in the mood for something fun, a film that evokes the glory days of the direct to VHS era that has some brains, give Screamers a watch. It’s perfect for a late night or a lazy weekend afternoon. Not a classic, but still underrated and well worth your time.