The most confusing Philip K. Dick movie ever is also the most faithful
"We heard the screaming, then they got very quiet. Nothing except the smell of death."
Forget The Road, Children of Men, or any other post-apocalyptic survival movie seemingly determined to destroy your every last shred of faith in humanity. The underseen and underrated Screamers is so unremittingly bleak it makes those movies look like a Richard Curtis rom-com by comparison.
This is a film where the teddy-clutching cherubic orphan we all presume will make it to the end has his face graphically shot off within ten minutes of being introduced. Like the army of children later slaughtered in cold blood, the fact that he’s really a self-replicating killer robot in disguise doesn’t make the moment any less shocking.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary on January 26, Screamers was adapted from Second Variety, a Philip K. Dick short story first published in Space Science Fiction magazine in 1953. But unlike Blade Runner, Total Recall, and the glut of adaptations that emerged in the early ‘00s (Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck), Screamers has little interest in making the source material more palatable for mainstream audiences.
Instead, director Christian Duguay, whose previous efforts included the first two Scanners sequels and Pierce Brosnan actioner Live Wire, appears determined to alienate anyone unfamiliar with the original tale. Good luck retaining the dense block of expository text that zooms along before the opening credits (the CliffsNotes version: Screamers takes place in the year 2078 amidst an interplanetary war sparked by a miners’ strike overexposure to poisonous gases).
Stationed in a depressingly grey outpost on the post-nuclear landscape of planet Sirius 6B, the rebels known as The Alliance don’t just have to fight their former bosses (the New Economic Block), they must also deal with their own sinister creations-gone-rogue: deadly autonomous robotic-creatures that burrow their way through the underground before emitting an eardrum-piercing scream. As one poor NEB soldier discovers in the opening scene, these Screamers’ limb-ripping abilities are also second to none.)
Still, with reports that the enemy wants to call a truce, The Alliance must venture out into the wilderness to determine whether civilization can be saved.
Screamers’ often impenetrable plot should have transferred from the page to the screen much earlier. Dan O’Bannon finished the script way back in 1981, a year before the release of a certain neon-lit Ridley Scott sci-fi. But, perhaps understandably, studios remained reluctant to commit to its faithfully grim premise. It was only when O’Bannon’s Total Recall screenplay gave Arnie his first hit of the ‘90s that Sony offshoot Triumph Pictures recognized there was some potential.
Sony also brought in screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores (Revenge of the Nerds), who kept much of O’Bannon’s work intact, including the most notable deviation from Dick’s short story. Whereas Second Variety concerns a battle between the United Nations and Russia very much rooted on Earth, Screamers transports the action to a fictional and much more isolated setting (a Quebec quarry and Montreal’s Olympic Stadium doubled convincingly as toxic outer space wasteland).
There’s also the addition of a charmingly naïve soldier whose military ship crashes just outside the Alliance’s HQ. Imbuing the film with much-needed nervous energy, Andrew Lauer’s Jefferson is one of only two characters given more than cardboard cutout personalities. His tragic death at the hands of another cleverly disguised screamer inevitably hits the hardest in a movie full of them.
The other notable performance belongs to a man no stranger to stark depictions of the future. RoboCop’s Peter Weller delivers a brilliantly deadpan performance as Commander Hendricksson, barking out orders (“if that man moves, or even farts, shoot him”) in a manner that suggests his years in a dreary military bunker have drained all joy from his soul.
These odd flashes of humor — there’s also a bizarre scene where Jefferson is busy watching 3D porn instead of keeping watch — can't stop Screamers from trudging ahead to its depressing denouement. Every character either suffers a grisly end via murderous machine or, like Hendricksson’s love interest (scream queen Jennifer Rubin), is exposed as one themselves, smothering the film in an almost overwhelming air of mistrust, fear and paranoia.
Just when the commander appears to have been given a happy ending in an emergency space shuttle heading for Earth, the closing shot of a twitching teddy bear shows he has some unwanted company. We may be spared the sight of his death, but Screamers: The Hunting, the 2009 sequel starring Arrow’s Stephen Amell, confirms that Hendricksson did meet his maker, bravely sacrificing himself to prevent the deadly stowaway from causing any more carnage.
Unsurprisingly, audiences didn’t exactly flock to this austere sci-fi devoid of star power or optimism. It barely clawed back a quarter of its $20 million budget at the box office. But Screamers’ refusal to pander to Hollywood makes it the purest distillation of Phillip K. Dick’s dreary dystopian vision that cinema has ever seen.
Screamers is streaming on Hulu with a Starz subscription.