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Will ‘Screamers’ Make You Scream in Nostalgia Or Horror?

They say hindsight is 20/20. So with that in mind, I’ll be looking at back at some pop culture of the past with the intention of reevaluating it to determine if my initial evaluation holds up, or if I was completely off the mark.

We’ll be starting off with Screamers, which was based on the Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety.” 

To this point, adaptations of Dick’s writing wasn’t as abundant as it is now but the track record for turning his work into sci-fi movie gold was impressive with the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster, Total Recall in 1990 and 1982’s all-time classic, Blade Runner.

So, when Screamers was released in 1995, this sci-fi horror flick must have seemed like a pretty good bet. But it ended up making back less than half of its original $20 million budget.

Screamers holds a strange place in my heart because it is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of a theater in the middle of. I don’t remember the movie that well, so more than a quarter of a century later I’m revisiting Screamers to ask… was it really that awful? (Heh, see what I did there?)

https://youtu.be/ZTo6kp27X7k

First off, if your sci-fi epic doesn’t have a Wookiee and some lightsabers, then you should probably avoid a scrolling text at the film’s opening to avoid any eye rolls. Less than a minute into watching, I’m getting some inkling of why I bailed on this movie back in the grunge era. But it is through this trope, read in a Flanged voiceover, that we find out that an element known as Berynium is the solution to the world’s energy issues. But due to the pollution released in the mining of this element on the planet known as Sirius 6B (ugh), the miners and scientists declare they won’t continue to mine it.

The New Economic Block, or N.E.B., declares war on these do-gooders who become known as “The Alliance.” The N.E.B. go so far as to drop nuclear bombs on The Alliance and the civilian population of Sirius 6B, which sounds a little extreme if you ask me.

We quickly see the stronghold of The Alliance and some soldiers in what look like puffier Members Only jackets sitting around on guard duty. They are alarmed to see a lone N.E.B. soldier wander into view. He is carrying an urgent message for the Alliance Commander, Joe Hendricksson, played by genre royalty, Peter Weller (RoboCop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai…).

The soldiers don’t shoot the messenger but things don’t go his way when we get our first taste of the “autonomous mobile swords,” known by the soldiers as Screamers. The message contains a call for peace negotiations between the two armed-forces. From here the plot gets a little convoluted as to why peace negotiations are being initiated by ground forces on a distant planet and not the people in charge, back on Earth.

There is a military transport that crashes at the base killing all on board except for Ace Jefferson (Andy Lauer), the sharpshooter who fills the role of the naïve, just out of training kid that no movie that involves the military can do without. He and his men were on their way to Triton 4 (double ugh) where more Berynium has been found and a new war is breaking out. For some reason this has rendered Sirius 6B and its rich stores of the miracle energy element useless (???) and its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves.

The highlight of the film comes at around the half hour mark as Hendricksson and his new friend, Ace, set out on foot to negotiate peace with the N.E.B. commander. The sci-fi keyboards and quasi-military drum rolls that set the tone to this point give way to the upbeat soul of “Hard Luck Solution.” Ace appears to turn on a CD Walkman and the audience is to believe that in the year 2078, an intergalactic space marine is bopping around to some watered-down, blue-eyed soul. The song is ridiculously out of place and at the same time IT. IS. (chef’s kiss) GLORIOUS. Hendricksson explains to Ace how this once beautiful planet become a desolate wasteland. His explanation is pretty much the movie’s opening summary crammed into word for word dialogue, making me wonder why both were necessary?

As our heroes travel and reach their destination, we meet several more characters that we’ve seen before; David, the young child who has somehow survived on their own, Becker, the tough guy who ain’t scared of nothing, Ross, the squirrely, trigger-happy soldier who has no chance of making it to the end of the movie and Hanson, the no nonsense, femme fatale played by Jennifer Rubin. (Side note: Rubin also appeared in the guilty pleasure that is Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and had one of the best deaths in franchise history.)

At N.E.B. base we find out that the screamers have been self-improving and can now make versions of themselves that appear to be humans. This is supposed to create tension for the audience who are supposed to wonder who is human and who is robot. So many of the performances are stiff and mechanical that I wondered if we were supposed to be fooled at all.

But I can’t include Weller in that last sentence.

The veteran actor gives the best performance of the film. He plays the quirky, yet serious hero well and does the best with the basic, 80’s action-hero dialogue he is given. At one point he asks a fellow soldier, “What are we doing? What in God’s name are we doing, Chuck?” One can imagine Weller was thinking the same thing on set throughout filming. He deserved better material to work with. If there is anything about his performance that I could have done without it would be his kissing scenes with Rubin. Weller is only 14 years older than the former model but looked much older than her at the time, giving any supposed romance between the two a cringe factor that had me finding anything in my surroundings to look at other than what was happening on-screen. The chemistry just wasn’t there between the two actors.

Another real problem with the film is the special effects. Screamers falls in the weird period of the 90’s where movie magic was transitioning from practical effects to CGI (the Disney + series Light and Magic does a great job of covering this changing of the guard). Looking back now, it’s tough not to be distracted by the stop animation of one era and the less than stellar digital effects of another time and think it all looks dated and mishmashed.

Of course, it isn’t the fault of the film that I’m reviewing it almost thirty years after its release.  The “screamers” are out of sight through most of the movie since they travel under the sand to attack their victims and when we finally see one late in the film it looks like some sort of mechanical model of a gecko lizard. The stop animation movement of these machines doesn’t help lend a sense of fear in the viewer.

Is Screamers awful? …

It’s not great. It has more of a straight to video feel so I’m not shocked that it didn’t make its money back on the big screen. But it must have done well in the secondary market or someone was a super fan of the original because it did get a sequel 14 years later.

Weller does not reprise his role but it does boast the equally as awesome Lance Henriksen. I’ve not seen the sequel and I’m a little weary to dip back into the franchise right away. If you’re interested in checking out Screamers: The Hunting, you’re on your own.

I think I might prefer to be torn apart by an actual screamer.

 

 

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