“Sirius 6B – year 2078. On a distant mining planet ravaged by a decade of war, scientists have created the perfect weapon: a blade-wielding, self-replicating race of killing devices known as Screamers designed for one purpose only – to hunt down and destroy all enemy life forms. But man’s greatest weapon has continued to evolve without any human guidance, and now it has devised a new mission: to obliterate all life. Colonel Hendricksson is commander of a handful of Alliance soldiers still alive on Sirius 6B. Betrayed by his own political leaders and disgusted by the atrocities of this never-ending war, Hendricksson decides he must negotiate a separate peace with the New Economic Bloc’s decimated forces. But to do so, he will have to cross a treacherous wasteland where the deadliest threat comes from the very weapons he helped to create.” (courtesy IMDB)
By the mid-nineties the theatrical genre B-grade movie seemed like just another fond memory from the eighties, then along comes a film which, for at least its first two-thirds, evokes the same gleeful fan-boyish…ahem, I mean, passionate feelings that James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Katherine Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) and Jack Sholder’s The Hidden (1987) inspired. Canadian cinematographer-cum-director Christian Dugay’s Screamers (1995) comes crashing down so hard at its climax after cranking mightily along for so long, it seems almost forgivable. Almost.
After a completely gratuitous opening crawl and voice-over which may cause many to reach for the remote control, Screamers opens promisingly enough on the war-torn mining planet of Sirius 6B. The discovery of a mineral has solved the universe’s energy problems but has had disastrous side-effects (as these energy sources often do). The Earth has split into two factions – the New Economic Bloc, and the Alliance – one side uses the mineral, the other doesn’t. So they’ve gone to war on Sirius 6B to settle this difference, keeping the Earth itself safe.
Colonel Hendricksson (Peter Weller), commander of the last remaining handful of Alliance soldiers on Sirius 6B, has realised after a decade of indecisive war that Earth has cut both sides off and wants them to burn each other up. He decides to negotiate a peace treaty with his counterpart on the NEB side of the planet. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, as Hendricksson must cross a frozen radioactive wasteland populated by the titular Screamers, a group of near-sentient, blade-wielding, self-replicating killing devices designed for one purpose only – to hunt down and destroy all life-forms not wearing the proper ID bracelet. They then use everything left of whatever they kill for raw materials to replicate themselves.
Accompanied by young trooper Ace (who doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it to the end credits), Hendricksson makes the journey to the New Economic Bloc headquarters, only to discover the Screamers have already decimated the enemy, leaving only three surviving members of the opposing side, including the delicious Jennifer Rubin. More disturbing, however, is the ominous discovery of the Screamers new trait of rapidly evolving into bigger, badder, and far more deadly versions of themselves, culminating with their final humanoid form that even a Terminator would have difficulty handling. This motley group must traipse back to the Alliance headquarters while eluding Screamers who have inexplicably decided to kill every human on Sirius 6B. Of course, before they arrive, hi-jinks ensue and just about everyone, well, screams.
According to the film’s production notes, the script for Screamers had been floating around since 1980 when producer Charles W. Fries optioned the screenplay. It’s too bad in all that time he couldn’t come up with a better third act – didn’t he see Total Recall (1990) which had the same damn problem? Like Total Recall, Screamers was based on a Philip K. Dick short story and adapted by genre veteran Dan O’Bannon, and might have been the first legitimate genre classic of the nineties – if only Dan had not succumbed to just about every genre cliche imaginable during the film’s final moments, and committed the unforgivable transgression of not playing fair with the audience.
But before suffering its own little meltdown, Screamers has Christian Dugay‘s masterful direction, Peter Weller’s subdued yet effective performance, and jaw-dropping production design and location work which immediately combine to create an evocative atmosphere the likes of which haven’t been seen since Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It doesn’t happen often, but here is one science fiction film which actually seems to take place on a distant planet. Production designer Perri Gorrara deserves special kudos for using Canadian locations to masterful effect. From the large burnt-out industrial complexes which stand-in for the remains of Sirius 6B’s mining industry, to the use of a sports stadium for the NEB command bunker, the vast sets provide a scale not often seen in a science fiction film.
The greatest misstep concerns the film’s climax and the Screamers themselves. The rules that the film painstakingly describes are completely dispensed with during the final twenty minutes of Screamers running time. First, it is never established just how they were able to evolve into their humanoid forms. The leap from silver spheres to mechanical insects to Shakespeare-quoting NEB soldiers is simply too big a stretch. Also, the Screamer processing plant is hinted at but never seen, as is a new unrecognised Screamer programming language which may or may not be of extraterrestrial origin. But why include these details if they aren’t going to amount to anything? And when did the Screamers suddenly decide to turn on their makers? After taking great pains to establish that ID bracelets must be worn to delineate friend from foe to the Screamers, the film suddenly conveniently dispense with this device to inexplicably have the Screamers infiltrate and conquer Alliance headquarters. By the end of the film you feel like you’ve missed a reel.
At any rate, Screamers is a welcome return for first-rate genre B-movie making. Big, loud, believable and nasty, the film stands as a testament to why the genre works best when produced by those who know it will play large on a big screen and, for the first hour at least, Screamers makes one remember why one likes science fictions films in the first place. And it’s with that thought in mind I’ll politely ask you to please join me next week to have your innocence violated beyond description while I force you to submit to the horrors of…Horror News! Toodles!