Saturday, April 7, 2018

Underrated Horror/Sci-Fi Movie Gems--"Screamers"

     "Screamers" is a Canadian science fiction/horror movie released in Canada in 1995, and in the U.S. in 1996.  It was both a critical and box office dud.  For the former, it accumulated largely negative reviews, and a 30% Rotten Tomatoes rating.  For the latter, the film made 5.7 million dollars on a 20 million dollar budget.  Obviously, though, I feel differently about it, so today I'd like to discuss it.  As usual, I'll begin with a spoiler-free synopsis, followed by a very detailed, spoiler-rich recap, and end with a discussion about some of the movie's themes and some info about the cast and crew.
     Synopsis:  The year is 2078, and the setting is the planet Sirius 6B.  This world has been waging a war that's lasted 10 years, between the New Economic Block (N.E.B.), the mining company, and the Alliance, made up of scientists and mining workers.  A once beautiful planet has been devastated by the war, especially from the N.E.B.'s use of nuclear and biological weapons on the populace.  To survive the Alliance invented screamers--small subterranean robots equipped with sensors and deadly blades.  The leader of the Alliance, Colonel Hendricksson, learns that all is not what it seems, politically, so he journeys to the nearest N.E.B. outpost to discuss a peace treaty.  But the Alliance's screamers have apparently developed into something far more powerful, and unexpected.  Will anyone survive the result?
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL MARKED)  "Screamers" begins with an opening text crawl.  In it we learn the basics about the conflict on planet Sirius 6B.  N.E.B. has controlled mining interests throughout the known universe for the past fifty years.  Twenty years ago, a solution to the energy crisis was found on Sirius 6B, in the form of the substance called berynium.  Alas, the downside was that mining it released tons of radiation and pollution, devastating the miners and the general population.  When the miners and the scientists demanded an end to the mining, the N.E.B. declared war.  This war has been a cold one on Earth, but a distinctly "hot" one on Sirius 6B.
     Next we see a long N.E.B. soldier approaching the underground bunker that houses the Alliance.  He doesn't appear actively hostile, but he's torn apart by screamers as some Alliance soldiers watch.  They discover he was carrying a message, which the Alliance soldiers retrieve with some difficulty.  The Alliance commander, Colonel Hendricksson, is then introduced.  He's clearly a student of history and culture, as he's examining an ancient coin, while listening to Mozart.  He and his officer friend Chuck read the message, which is from a Marshall Richard Cooper.  Cooper guarantees safe passage for two officers to come and meet him for a peace negotiation at his N.E.B. headquarters.  Then the Alliance receives a hologram transmission from Earth, from their leader Secretary Green.  Green explains that the peace offer is genuine.  Berynium has been found on another planet, Triton 4, and this ore is radiation-free.  The war can be declared over, and the Alliance can return to (safe) mining on Triton 4.  Shortly thereafter, a civilian transport crashed nearby, killing all but one person.  This man, "Ace" Jefferson, has more bombshells to report.  He's a soldier that was part of a military group traveling to Triton 4.  The berynium there is still dangerous, and his group was going to begin another war there.  Also, Secretary Green was removed two years before, and assassinated by Alliance Command.  Hendricksson thinks this ruse was done to placate Alliance supporters and families on Earth, but essentially the Alliance is hoping that Sirius 6B soldiers will just die quietly.  (The Alliance is continuing to send food and supply shipments, to perpetuate the fiction, of course.)
     Hendricksson decides to travel to Cooper's headquarters anyway, to make his own peace.  He brings Jefferson with him.  Along the way we learn a bit more about the screamers.  An underground, self-sustaining facility was built years ago, but was then left alone, meaning the Alliance humans aren't sure what's going on.  Screamers attack any living creature, so to protect themselves Alliance soldiers are fitted with "tabs"--device coded to the individual person that broadcasts their heartbeats out of sync, as a flatline.  This fools the screamers into thinking that tab wearers aren't alive, so they don't attack them.  Alas, the radiation in the atmosphere sometimes causes these important safety devices to malfunction.  The two walk through a hostile and bleak land--a wasteland devastated by the nuclear bombs, war, and disease.  Much to their shock, they encounter a civilian survivor--a nine year old boy named David.  He seems odd, but they take him along anyway.  Hendricksson's attempts to speak with Chuck back at the Alliance bunker are strained, probably due to radiation.
     As they approach Cooper's headquarters shots ring out from N.E.B. soldiers.  However, the bullets were aimed at David, and they reveal that he's not human, but is instead a new type of advanced screamer.  We're introduced to three N.E.B. soldiers.  Ross is a nervous, nerdy looking man.  Becker is cynical and bullies Ross.  Jessica runs a black market operation that specializes in liquor (and may also be a prostitute).  There's more bad news.  Advanced screamers, including the "David" models, have recently wiped out most of the N.E.B. force.  The N.E.B. soldiers grudgingly agree to take Hendricksson and Jefferson to the command bunker, which was also attacked by screamers.  It turns out these N.E.B. soldiers were right--the command bunker is bereft of people, with huge pools of blood attesting to the carnage.  Just before the screamers attack, Hendricksson learns from the command center computers about some of the new types of screamers.  The Type 1 is the original kind.  Type 1 revised is a reptile-looking version.  The Type 3 is the "David" model.  The Type 2 is rumored to be one that looks like a wounded human soldier.  Most importantly, some of these new types are not fooled by the tabs.  Back at Jess's place an argument erupts between Ross and Becker over Ross's appearing to be a screamer.  Becker kills him when Ross pulls his gun.  It turns out Becker has made a mistake, as Ross is revealed to have been human.
     The dwindling group returns to the Alliance bunker.  Chuck sounds strange on the radio, so the group pauses near the entrance.  Then the door opens, revealing dozens of "David" screamers.  The group narrowly survives when Hendricksson manages to destroy the "Davids" with a mini nuclear missile.  Jefferson goes to help Becker, who's been wounded in the blast.  Alas, Becker is a screamer, and he kills Jefferson before being destroyed by Hendricksson.  After she passes Henricksson's impromptu "human test" (he cuts her hand to see if she bleeds), Jess is allowed to accompany Hendricksson to the Alliance's last resort.  High in the mountains is hidden a facility with a small escape ship, for Hendricksson to return to Earth.  While getting this ready, Hendricksson is attacked by another screamer, which has taken Chuck's face, and tortured him for personal information.  After a brief battle Hendricksson manages to destroy this screamer.  Then another Jessica appears.  She's an advanced screamer model too--one that can "smile, cry, bleed, and fuck."  The two Jessicas fight each other, and the older one is able to destroy the new one, while getting significantly damaged itself.  Before she "dies" she reveals that she wanted to tell him that she was a screamer, and that's she's learned how to love.  Hendricksson blasts off in the ship.  The final shot is of "David"'s teddy bear, which is sitting unnoticed at the feet of Hendricksson.  It begins to move--yet another screamer model, apparently.
     Let's get this out of the way--"Screamers" has its issues.  You can see the many sci-fi/horror influences upon it.  For example, like in John Carpenter's version of "The Thing," there is the not knowing who's human, and who's the enemy.  The robotic/cyborgian screamers are also reminiscent of the titular "Terminators," too.  And the robots who learn, and struggle with emotions, echo those in "Blade Runner."  And the space soldiers on another planet, dealing with an evil corporation, obviously seems like a callback to "Aliens."  Then there's the ending, with the robot that learns to love.  This is admittedly hokey, and easily the worst part of the movie.  Going on, the special effects, so important to a movie like this, are a bit hit and miss.  The screamers effects and makeup work for the most part, but when they fly out of the ground and attack people it's not very convincing.  However, as readers can guess, while acknowledging these faults, I still like the movie overall.  Yes, certain elements of the story aren't the most original, but I feel the story works alright nonetheless.  The ending part about robots learning to love is weak, but I don't think it ruins the entire movie.  And the kind of shoddy special effects scenes are very quick, which minimizes the damage done by them.
    So what do I like about it, then?  For one, I like the set designs and shooting locations quite a bit.  Even on such a relatively modest budget, Sirius 6B seems real.  The snowy Canadian wilderness used stands in well as a harsh result of a terrible war.  The ugly industrial hell which comprises the N.E.B. territory is effective, too.  (Some scenes were shot in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, others at a local quarry.)  Some of the landscapes are clearly matte paintings, but I think they hold up pretty well.  I enjoyed the acting performances, too.  Peter Weller is suitably gruff but sympathetic as Hendricksson, and Andrew Lauer (Jefferson) is convincing as an eager, rather naive soldier.  Jennifer Rubin (Jess), Roy Dupuis (Becker), and Charles Edwin Powell (Ross), do fine as well.  They all skate the line between seeming possibly human, or possibly a screamer, as they should.  And Ron White (Chuck) has a nice chemistry with Weller--they seem like old battle comrades and friends.  And, like I mentioned before, the story isn't the most original, but it's serviceable and interesting.  There are some nice moments of tension, and an overall aura of creepiness to the whole affair.
     As for particular scenes I liked, I felt the opening scene was cool.  We know something is up as the lone man approaches the bunker, but we don't know what.  Both the N.E.B. soldier and the watching Alliance soldiers are both scared and confused.  It's nicely tense.  They're  not exciting action scenes or anything, but I also enjoyed the parts when Hendricksson and the Alliance soldiers go through the gamut of hearing about a possible peace treaty, and then this is apparently confirmed, but then they soon learn the truth about Triton 4 and their situation. Those poor Alliance folks can't catch a break!  The command bunker scene is neat as well.  We've heard about the slaughter, but seeing all the blood, and lack of survivors, is still shocking and disturbing.  Henricksson's hurried attempts to learn more about the screamers, while he knows they're coming, is effectively frantic.  As is the retreat from there back to Jess's hideout.  I particularly noted that the small child sized "David" screamers were able to hammer upon and break open a giant metal door.  Finally, the scene of the "Davids" emerging from the Alliance bunker was sad and engaging.  The viewers know that the Alliance was in danger from these advanced screamers, but we didn't know for sure that they were all dead.
     Probably the main theme of "Screamers" is paranoia.  From the opening scene, no one seems to know what's going on.  And this just escalates.  The Alliance suspects that the N.E.B. peace offering may be a trap.  Then their superiors tell them it's cool, and that the war may be over.  Then they learn that this is a lie, and their own side has essentially abandoned them to die.  Then there's the screamers themselves.  They were built by the Alliance, but obviously have then developed into their own mysterious enterprise, building themselves, and constantly upgrading themselves.  And no longer limited by the tabs--they're uncontrollable, and deadly to everyone.  It becomes difficult to tell who's human and who's not.  Both their human superiors and their invented machines are betraying the Alliance at every turn.  You can't even trust your close friend of over 10 years--he might be a hideous, violent, mechanical impersonator.  Robots, and computers will kill us all, and take over.  It's all reminiscent of the recently deceased Stephen Hawking''s fear of artificial intelligence, and computers.
     I found the choice of combatants to be an interesting one, too.  The two sides could have been anything--such as the more typical wars between different countries, or settlements divided by political or religious issues.  But instead the enemy was an evil corporation.  Even Weyland-Yutani from the "Alien" movie series stopped short of declaring and waging its own war.  They were corrupt, and greedy, but mostly behind the scenes--they at least appeared to function within society, and follow the rules.  But the N.E.B. is powerful enough to not be controlled, or actively opposed by the Earth's government (or governments, they don't get into how many countries there still are).  The decision to make this a fight about mining issues seems deliberate as well.  Some of the worst labor disputes in the U.S. (and possibly elsewhere?) were between mining companies and their employees.  And what was the radiation from the berynium but a more extreme version of environmental damage done by mines in our history?  Plus the whole war portrayed in "Screamers" can be seen as an exaggerated version of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when mining company goons and the Colorado National Guard fired upon and slaughtered striking mine workers and their families.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the film creators were pro-union, and perhaps from an area with a long history of mining (and its drawbacks), like West Virginia or the like.
     As for the ending, a few tweaks here and there would have made it less cheesy.  Instead of talking about love after only knowing Hendicksson for maybe a day (or at most, a few--it's unclear), perhaps Jess could have expressed something less melodramatic, like saying it cared, that it realized it didn't have to kill people.  If one screamer learned sentiment like this, maybe there's hope--maybe others would be similarly non-psychotic.  Maybe the screamer factories were making their robots too human-like, in other words.
     The story does leave me with some questions.  First, why did Becker and Jess not kill Ross before Hendricksson and Jefferson arrived?  Even if they somehow knew that Alliance soldiers were coming for the peace talks, Ross was unnecessary.  A story that only two of them survived the carnage rather than three is pretty much the same.  (Obviously, I realize that having Ross was a plot contrivance, a red herring for the movie, but I mean within the story's world view itself.)  It could be said that this hits on another point--can the advanced screamer models recognize each other (as long as they're the first and only models around, clearly--they know what the "David" model looked like) ?  Maybe Becker and Jess didn't kill Ross because they thought the other one was human, and would then destroy them.  (Although you'd think in such a small group they'd be able to kill Ross, and the other one, if they were human, pretty easily, especially since they had guns.)
    Finally, it's kind of amusing to think about what the screamers would do at the end of the movie, since evidently the only living creatures on Sirius 6B were then rats.  (And I'm mostly talking about the advanced, more human-like models like David, Becker, and Jess.)  Would they try to get people to come to Sirius 6B so they could kill them, and steal their ships, so they could get to other planets and Earth?  Sort of like the "Send more paramedics" scene from "Return of the Living Dead"?  Are they advanced enough to build their own rocket ships?  Since the wait for more humans might take months, or years, or eternity, if Hendricksson was able to sound the alarm and/or return to Earth, would they be human enough to get bored?  Or fight with each other?  A weird part of me wants to see a movie about a bunch of screamers trying to amuse themselves while waiting for prey.
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  As one might expect, most of the cast and crew associated with this obscure, unsuccessful mid 1990's movie haven't become household names.  Many of the folks were involved with Canadian television and films, and their careers continued in this localized forum.  Director Christian Duguay has kept busy, but seems to have continued his trend of making non-profitable, largely negatively-reviewed films.  He's probably best known for "Scanners 2: The New Order" (1991), "Scanners 3" (1992), "The Art of War" (2000), "Boot Camp" (2007), and "Un Sac de Billes" (2017).  Original screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who I discussed in my post about "Dead & Buried" (1981) (See February 24, 2016 post), is noted for his work on "Alien" (1979), "Return of the Living Dead" (1984), and "Total Recall" (1990), among others.  Reportedly, Miguel Tejada-Flores rewrote most of O'Bannon's script, however.  Highlights of Tejada-Flores' career include writing the story for "Revenge of the Nerds" (1984) and "Beyond Re-Animator" (2003), and the scripts for "Fright Night Part II" (1988), and the sequel to "Screamers," called "Screamers: The Hunting" (2009).  Staying on writers, "Screamers" is based on a short story ("Second Variety") by the noted sci-fi author Philip K. Dick.  Many of Dick's stories have been adapted for the screen, including "Blade Runner" (1982), "Total Recall" (1990), "Minority Report" (2002, "A Scanner Darkly" (2006), and "The Adjustment Bureau" (2011).
     As for the actors, Peter Weller (Col. Joe Hendricksson) is easily the biggest name in the cast.  Weller is remembered for starring in "RoboCop" (1987), "RoboCop 2" (1990), and "Naked Lunch" (1991), as well as appearing in a supporting role in 2013's "Star Trek: Into Darkness."  He's also received his Masters and Doctorate, specializing in Italian Renaissance Art.  He was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for Best Live Action Short Film for "Partners."  Jennifer Rubin (Jessica Hansen) is probably best known for roles in "A Nightmare on Elm St. Part 3: Dream Warriors" (1987), "Bad Dreams" (1988), "The Doors" (1991), and "The Crush" (1993).  And, alas, "Transmorphers: Fall of Man" (2009), a "mockbuster" from the infamous The Asylum studio.  Ace Jefferson portrayer Andrew Lauer is arguably most recalled from the late 1990's television show "Caroline in the City."  He also appeared in "Necessary Roughness" (1991) and another Asylum rip-off offering, "H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds" (2005).  Less depressingly, he directed a movie (2010's "Adventures of a Teenage Dragonslayer") and currently helps out non-profit charities by making promotional videos for them.  Roy Dupuis (Becker) has stayed busy, mostly in Canadian productions.  He was on television's "La Femme Nikita" (1997-2001) and in "Shake Hands with the Devil" (2007), among others.  Bruce Boa (Secretary Green) was in several notable movies, such as "The Omen" (1976), "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) (as General Rieekan), "Octopussy" (1983), and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).
     So, if any of this has sounded intriguing, you might want to check out "Screamers."  It's certainly no classic, but I consider it to be pretty good.  A nice bit of escapist entertainment that might make you think a little bit.  Or at least distrust the machines around you!

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