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Criminally Underrated: Screamers

Criminally Underrated: Screamers

Its smart script, fully realized world and unrelenting tension more than make up for its cold delivery.

Director Christian Duguay’s hard science fiction chiller Screamers is one of the lesser known and least acclaimed films based on a Philip K. Dick work. The 1995 film is also one of the most faithful. Its failure at the box office and with critics of the time has a lot to do with its unceasingly grim tone and lack of likeable characters, but its smart script, fully realized world and unrelenting tension more than make up for its cold delivery.

Screamers is set in the year 2078 on the planet Sirius 6B, a former mining outpost that is now a nuclear wasteland because of a war between the mining company New Economic Bloc (NEB) and the Alliance, a group of disgruntled former NEB employees. Alliance scientists have created Autonomous Mobile Swords (AMS), blade-wielding AI soldiers who can self-replicate. They sense human heartbeats and scream as they attack, hence the title nickname. In response, Alliance soldiers wear tabs that conceal their heartbeats. However, resources have been depleted on both sides, and both also fear that their counterparts on Earth have basically written them off. The film’s action really starts when Alliance officer Joe Hendricksson (Robocop himself, Peter Weller) heads out to meet with the NEB commanding officer to broker a truce. As things progress, they discover that the Screamers have evolved, taking on forms that range from insect-like to reptilian to human.

Adapted for the screen by sci-fi/horror legend Dan O’Bannon (who wrote Alien and Return of the Living Dead and did special effects for Star Wars, among other achievements) from the Dick story “Second Variety,” the major shift here was to take the action from Earth to the far-off Sirius 6B. The new setting thematically links the film to O’Bannon’s work on Alien, which also concerned deep space mining and a more industrial view of space exploration than the science fiction norm. It also gives Screamers a distinct sense of isolation.

This isolation, coupled with the constant are-they-human-or-villain tension, makes Screamers a narrative cousin to John Carpenter’s The Thing. However, unlike Carpenter’s 1982 gore-fest, this movie refuses to spend any precious time making Hendricksson or any other character as relatable as Kurt Russell’s MacReady. The future that Dick, O’Bannon and Duguay have created here is far too vicious for that.

Screamers obviously draws a lot of influence from films like the original Alien trilogy, Blade Runner, Terminator, The Thing and David Cronenberg’s 1981 Scanners (which is confusing not only because of the similar titles but also because Screamers director Duguay directed two sequels to Scanners). However, it also clearly influenced a number of successful films and television series from Transformers to “Battlestar Galactica” to The Matrix. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Screamers’ legacy, however, is that it is a relatively unique viewing experience today, over 20 years after its initial release. Much of this has to do with the production design (by Perri Gorrara), which cleverly used landmarks like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to create an apocalyptic futuristic industrial landscape, and the score by Canadian composer Normand Corbeil, which blends what we expect from science fiction and horror while allowing time and space to showcase the unique, bone-chilling screams of the villains.

The early ‘90s featured a lot of divisive science fiction that is only now being really appreciated. A Director’s Cut of Alien 3 helped it find a broader audience, while the creative spiraling of later Matrix films helped turn people towards colder but cooler films like Dark City and Gattaca. Underrated at the time of its release, Screamers deserves an enthusiastic reevaluation.

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