Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—Screamers

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I thought I’d delve into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will try to stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and aim to focus specifically on the films themselves.

This week, let’s fly off to a planet far, far away and take on Screamers (1995)—Christian Duguay (dir.)

Screamers poster
If you like cult films, then this one is for you. In Screamers, the original Robocop, Peter Weller, takes on mechanical killing machines. Only now, the machines have learned to look like us.

Spoilers ahead for a 20-year-old film.

The interesting thing about this film, and how it fits into the Philip K. Dick oeuvre, is that it once again deals with the idea of the soul. Putting mankind in all-out war, which is all about the lack of humanity, and then adding a mechanical entity that is starting to learn past its programming and feel is heady stuff indeed. Can an artificial intelligence be more humane and caring than its human creators? That’s the question raised by this film—though not as well as it could have been. It’s wrapped up in a “there and back again” sci-fi story: mankind is fighting over resources, and one side creates mechanical killing machines, dubbed screamers because of the sound they make just before they’re about to kill. These killing machines are small and burrow through the earth (think a small mechanical “graboid” à la Tremors) before jumping out and attacking their prey. They are also self-replicating—and they’re learning to look and act like us.


There’s something in the dirt!

This is based on one of my favorite Philip K. Dick short stories, “Second Variety.” The idea that these machines are evolving and beginning to look like us definitely plays up the tension in the novel, however here there isn’t a lot of tension. What we do get is Peter Weller at his Welleriest (no, it’s not a word, but it should be) as Joseph Hendricksson, leader of the Alliance resistance group. A glint in the eyes, a no-nonsense demeanor, and a little more going on than everyone else make you feel like he’s in on a great big cosmic joke. Unfortunately, you know how the movie is going to end before he does.

Screamers Peter Weller

Peter Weller at his Welleriest

There’s an interesting moment at the start of the film that is mirrored towards the end. The first happens when some Alliance soldiers see an enemy soldier coming up to their bunker. They debate on whether they should kill him or not and finally decide to, but then the screamers do the job for them. The soldiers’ humanity has been lost—enemy lives don’t matter in war. The mirror comes towards the end of the film, when one of the new variety of screamers protects Hendricksson from one of her brethren, showing that she has found humanity. The problem with the opening scene for me, however, is that the soldiers know that the screamers are out there—why not just let them take care of the soldier initially? Why the debate? The answer, of course, is because they have to set up the dichotomy. It’s an interesting idea, just not greatly executed.

There are some other moments with a lot of potential that aren’t fully explored. When paranoia starts to creep in and the soldiers don’t know whether they can trust each other, one of them kills another one because he suspects him of being a machine. The film stays on this, wanting to force it to sink in, but the actors don’t necessarily seem to know what they should be feeling. A slightly better script and firmer direction would have helped this film greatly. The director, Christian Duguay, had directed other films before Scanners, but it feels like he just took on more than he could handle.

There’s some shoddy CGI work due to the film being shot in the ’90s on a low budget, but there are also some really good practical effects. There are a lot of severed limbs in this film, which can be fun. I would have loved to see them come up with more practical and lose the CGI entirely.

In terms of the overall plot, there is a forced love interest played by Jennifer Rubin (you might remember her as Taryn from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3:Dream Warriors). While she does a good job with the part, it feels like they tried too hard to make her sexy. I can hear the pitch meeting: “We need a love interest for Peter, but she also has to be tough. Well, let’s have her take her top off five minutes into their meeting him and sponge herself down because she’s dirty. That’s sexy, right?” Sure, if I were 15. The funny thing is that Weller’s character would probably be more attracted to the no-nonsense black marketer that she was originally written as than the hybrid character she ended up being.

screamers jennifer rubin

Jennifer Rubin

While I’ve come up with a lot of complaints about this film, I really did enjoy it—I just see so much wasted potential. I blame my overhyped expectations going in. Screamers was received well enough to have a straight-to-DVD sequel (Screamers: The Hunting). It also knows it has more to say than some of the other Dick film adaptations I’ve written about lately, so it does get an “A” for effort, and sometimes that’s enough.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick:

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