Screamers (1995) — Mutually assured destruction metaphors

“Can I come with you?”

Justin’s rating: You know, if I didn’t have my coffee right now, I think I might be typing this sentence entirely backwards.

Justin’s review: When a movie has a great set-up, that can be worth the price of admission alone. Trust me, I’ve been suckered into many sub-par flicks that seem, by premise alone, to have it all going for them. If they end up being as great as the set-up, then it’s pure gold; if there’s a terrific set-up but a lousy execution, then there’s just a wistful (but not regretful) feeling of “what could have been.” Screamers is one of those latter ones — the set-up is killer, with a different, interesting and mysterious setting for the movie. Too bad it just ends up being merely okay instead of cult genius.

Here’s the sitrep: It’s the vague future, and on a hotly contested mining planet, the lone survivors of a 10-year war are mostly cut off from each other and Earth while sitting on a stalemate of sorts. This stalemate is a result of a new weapon, nicknamed screamers, which are little buzzsaw robots that burrow underground and attack any heartbeat not protected by the correct recognition codes.

Mystery flourishes at Commander Hendricksson’s (RoboCop’s Peter Weller) base as a soldier from the other side shows up with a letter asking for a truce, a message comes in from Earth that the war is effectively over, and an unknown spaceship crash-lands carrying a nuclear reactor. What’s going on — is it a trick, or not? And how come the screamers are getting an upgrade package? The only way to find out is to cross a landscape filled with technological horrors to the other base and see what’s what.

For a small, low budget scifi film, Screamers impresses me with an intelligent plot and cool ideas, at least enough to have rewatched this a good half-dozen times since I first rented it. The planet itself and the situation is crucial to my affection. You really do get a feeling that this is a war-weary, desolate outpost far out of contact with shinier technology and crisper soldiers. As Hendrickson and his gang cross the radiation wastes, it impresses the viewer that this is the last days of a truly futile war, one that’s gone on longer than most people remember how it really started in the first place. Since this story is a close adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story (an author who also gave us the source material for Blade Runner and Minority Report), there’s no mistaking this movie for one of its similar-looking but brain-dead cousins.

Quality dialogue springs forth on the journey between Hendrickson and new arrival Jefferson. “Quality dialogue” is my secret code for “hilariously strange.” All you have to imagine is some sort of alternate universe Odd Couple episode, with one of the fellows being a gruff, cranky military commander who yells at rocks that turn into bugs and the other one being a dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers jock who talks about making gourmet dishes a lot.

However, unless you’ve recently inherited the brain of a semi-diseased camel named Yvonnie, there’s no getting past the fact that Screamers has some serious flaws. Too many plot points are left unresolved, which is unfortunate considering how much this movie makes you want to know the truth. Not only that, but by the last third of the film, it becomes a second-rate Aliens/Terminator clone with natty special effects (kids at home, can you say “matte paintings” or “stop-motion animation?”). That’s where the wistfulness settles in right into the bones.

If you look at it as a movie — no kidding, of course that’s what it is — Screamers is destined to let you down. No sugar for you, daddy. But… but if you watch Screamers from the warped perspective of reading a short story put to moving pictures, then it’s quite intriguing. When it comes to science fiction, “intriguing” is a compliment.

Didja notice?

  • Wow, we’ve colonized other systems by 2078? Go us!
  • Based of the short story “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick
  • Kind of weak-stomached soldiers, aren’t they?
  • Guess they don’t use paper much anymore in the future
  • Holograms cast shadows, apparently
  • Anti-radiation cigarettes!
  • Soldiers love their CD players in the future
  • Dude, what year is that cell phone from? 1989?
  • Rock bugs!
  • Gratuitous sponge bath scene

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