Film Reviews

Screamers Christian Duguay

Rating - 5/10

Spawned from Philip K. Dick's short story "Second Variety," Christian Duguay's Screamers (1995) materializes as a thrilling two-thirds of a film ripe with Dick's well-conceived futuristic science fiction or cyberpunk lore; conversely, it abandons the resource of potential in favor of Hollywood conventionalism in a final act of farcical explosions, contrived romance, plot twists, and a purposely inconclusive "teaser" ending that prompted a sequel some fourteen years later.  While the film's continuity is often bestowed by a genuine sense of tension in a desolate futuristic landscape of shades of gray and brown, there are occasions where it is needlessly robbed by devolution into a spectacle of overwrought atmosphere and skepticism.  Dissatisfied with apparent literary associations, the film adaptation is rather interested in extending the minor horror elements from Dick's story, thus indirectly conveying itself as a provisional version of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) with an enemy believed to copy and eliminate its host subjects.

To illuminate the intermingled state of affairs of the literature and film's illustrious backdrop, the year is 2078 in a decimated mining colony on planet Sirius 6B (replaced from "Terra" in the story).  Ten years prior, a governmental force known as the New Economic Block (also altered from "Russians" in the written work) depleted the reserves of a highly energy efficient mineral called berynium, the world's answer to dwindling fossil fuels, and unleashed massive doses of radiation and pollution into the environment.  The allied workers on the mining sites were subsequently deserted, bombing raids and a war ensued, and Sirius 6B was reduced to post-apocalyptia.  To combat the NEBs, the alliance developed the autonomous mobile sword (interchanged with "automatic retaliation disc") also known as the "screamer" or "claw" that burrowed under the soil to assault hostiles.  Dan O'Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores' construct of the screenplay dutifully honors the universe of Philip K. Dick, but beyond the author's backdrop, their application of supplementary ideas is a relative half-cooked stew.  With a feature-length running time, the film's most glaring fault is lack of character development in lieu of the weighty and more riveting narrative components and environmental origins.  Moreover, a persistence of unresolved plot points and elusive clarifications stifle the immersive possibility.  The main character of the film, Colonel Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller), the only decently formed protagonist, is a stereotypical hard ass with a lost love, but he is a model of characterization in comparison to Michael Jefferson, a lone survivor of a downed transport headed to another planet, Triton Four.  Jefferson, who does not appear in the short story, plays the naïve rookie, and the film uses this personal facet as an excuse to abandon his skeleton of a story.  Though the film never intends to become a character study in face of the increasing presence of horror and incremental death, in this circumstance, it associates human ambitions but never intends to link the chain.  While Screamers is not unnecessarily overloaded with characters, it feels a bit like a mess of scenarios converging without proper resolution, as it is instead involved with suspense and philosophy.

While the cinematically addended scenes are fairly contrived or lacking, Screamers and its origin story both introduce a philosophically resonant and successful concept concerning the eternal question: "what does it mean to be human?"  This traditionally cyberpunk-ian theme contests the habitual definitions of humanity; while science fiction fundamentally identifies man versus machine as a central conflict with each side exhibiting the severe characteristics of the other, the ambiguity regarding the transcendence of the physical state in achieving a self-cognition is unique to the psychology of cyberpunk.  As Dick effectively outlines the learning capabilities of the claws, the film provides a visual component to further complement ideas of mortality, sentient beings, cohabitation and/or utter divisiveness.  To apply a most relevant quote from fellow apocalyptic sci-fi blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the artificial life form, the terminator, utters, "It's in your nature to destroy yourselves," to a teenage John Connor.  This philosophical observation reflects a sense of an advanced mechanical self-awareness that Dick proposed years before that film in his original story from 1953.  In accordance with the text of "Second Variety," intricacies behind the screamer types are not completely unveiled; however, each is manufactured or created differently, which explains several unanswered questions in the film regarding the screamers' eradication of one another.  The text expands upon this by building up to a rhetorical finale as the claws begin to implement weapons designed to target their own weaknesses.  It's a progressively domineering struggle that highlights the irony of the future situation, perpetuating the morbid cycle of life beyond natural existence or beings that would normally be characterized as living.  In the short story, secondary characters Klaus and Rudi openly discuss the issue amidst the looming paranoia.  Klaus suggests, "Maybe we're seeing it now, the end of human beings, the beginning of a new society," while Rudi rebuts with, "They're not a race.  They're mechanical killers."  Klaus and Rudi are replaced by NEB soldiers Becker and Ross in the film, respectively, and both refrain from moral deliberation as each are reduced to the personification of a specific emotion.

Although the extraneous or restructured characters in the film are underwhelming, the final section of Screamers acts as the proverbial nail in the coffin and the ultimate diversion from the more irresolute pessimism of the written story.  Of course the last minute of the film is also an obvious cliffhanger, but it is a truism of horror cinema and a completely superfluous gesture to propel a franchise name.  Dick's conclusion directly references the earlier conversations of the characters, the overarching uncertainty and inevitable downfall of the human race.  While Tasso (renamed "Jessica Hansen" in the adaptation) boards the emergency rocket cruiser in Hendricksson's place, the film reverses the situation and bestows a love scenario between them.  Jessica is revealed to be a type of screamer prior to boarding the ship, and a second screamer doppelganger then suddenly appears to battle the one known to Hendricksson.  This entire scene draws upon the necessity for a degree of convoluted conventionality in science fiction; while the narrative can be regarded as somewhat stoically catastrophic and unfamiliar, it retains relevance in modern day to mainstream audiences by offering this relatable outlook paired with a dose of almost comical slipshod action.  While this dilution or dumbing down is unfortunate, it introduces a moral circumstance absent within the story -- the ability of the machine to ascertain the complexity of human love and possess emotional attachment beyond the physical realm or its programmed objectives.  Although the topic is not wholly unexplored in films of this nature, it remains marginally intriguing and averts total disaster.  That accredited, Screamers most certainly squanders a greater potential and tapers off unwelcomely.  Perhaps the film's conceptual essence can be abridged to a single idle exchange between Jefferson and Hendricksson (supposedly paralleling the one between Klaus and Rudi in the story).  "The screamers are down there breeding like rabbits, and no one knows (how)?"  Hendricksson acknowledges his concern but ardently refuses to provide an honest answer.