Friday January 26, 1996
The imagination of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick blossomed at a time when paranoia about the atom bomb, encroaching communists and space invaders--sometimes communist space invaders with the bomb--was at its peak and we were mesmerized by almost any tale of enemies among us.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and actual space travel, those specific fears have receded faster than Ron Howard's hairline, and filmmakers adapting '50s sci-fi stories for today's audiences must bolster them with some compelling contemporary concern, or do what the makers of "Screamers" have done and commit the sin of irrelevance.
"Screamers," adapted from a 1952 Philip K. Dick short story titled "Second Variety," plays with the same basic notions the author explored in "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall," which were adapted on film. Dick envisioned a future with the Earth dependent upon fuel sources mined in outer space, with a slave force of androids who occasionally get uppity, start rewriting their programs and plot to take the place of humans.
That is the precise setting and premise of "Screamers," and that's all it is. The year is 2078, and the place is the planet Sirius 6B, where 10 years of civil war between two mining interests have left a decimated moonscape and a handful of survivors faced with an enemy of their own making. Somewhere beneath the planet's surface is an android factory, which, in the absence of human supervision, is turning out new and improved models designed to infiltrate and destroy all life in the universe.
The title characters are small, mechanical androids who look like baby dinosaurs with radial saw blades for snouts, and whose purpose is to provide a defense shield for the Alliance scientists holed up in a concrete bunker. These machines kill two ways, by slice-and-dice and by emitting a brain-piercing shriek that will tear the covers off your theater's surround-sound speakers. (If this film is successful, the sequel should star androids who scrape their fingernails across blackboards.)
When the fed-up Col. Hendricksson (Peter Weller), with a gung-ho young soldier named Ace (Andy Lauer) in tow, set off on a peace mission, he knows the screamers have been acting funny lately, but he has no idea what the androids actually have in store for them.
Director Christian Duguay ("Scanners II"), working with a script by Dan O'Bannon ("Total Recall") and Miguel Tejada-Flores ("Fright Night II"), doesn't give us so much as a peek at the subterranean world of the androids or bother to offer any advice on how they might have developed the motor skills necessary to redesign and manufacture themselves. They just keep popping up in different forms, the latest models appearing human and vulnerable, while Hendricksson, Ace and the others they meet along the way--an orphaned child clutching a tattered teddy bear, a beautiful black market hooch peddler, a couple of bickering enemy soldiers--try to figure out who's whom or what.
On the surface, "Screamers" is a pretty conventional action adventure. Beneath the surface, it's not much at all. The makers ignored the examples of "Blade Runner," where Ridley Scott shifted the focus from subversive robots to a frightening vision of a crime-infested, overpopulated 21st century Los Angeles, and "Total Recall," which sprung from the new paranoia about invasive computer technology.
Some extraordinary stunt work and special effects went into "Screamers," and the opening attack on a human being will pin you to the back of your seat, probably with your fingers jammed in your ears. But there's nothing exhilarating or enjoyable in any of this. The world of Sirius 6B is typical post-apocalypse gloom. The landscape is a barren tundra with a matte-painted backdrop of bombed-out cities, and the interiors are done in a scorched basement motif.
It is an ugly, unpleasant place, with a bad soundtrack and without an interesting character or idea to call its own. Weller handles his action chores like an old pro, and as his black market girlfriend Jessica, Jennifer Rubin manages to look gorgeous, despite her layers of grime and oil.
But these are the tiniest rewards for the pain--real and imagined--involved in sitting through it.
Screamers, 1996. R, for sci-fi violence and terror, some language and a brief moment of nudity. An Allegro Films production. Released by Triumph. Director Christian Duguay. Producers Tom Berry and Franco Battista. Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores, based on the Philip K. Dick short story "Second Variety." Editor Yves Langois. Cinematography by Rodney Gibbons. Production design by Perri Gorrara. Music Norman Corbeil. Costumes Trixi Rittenhouse. Special effects by Buzz f/x. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Peter Weller as Col. Hendricksson. Jennifer Rubin as Jessica. Andy Lauer as Ace.