Saturday, April 3, 2010
#82: Screamers (Christian Duguay, 1995)
Many elements were in place for Screamers to be something other than an ordinary sci-fi/horror movie, yet that's exactly what it is. It's based on a Philip K. Dick story ("Second Variety"), it was co-written by the late, great Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall), and it stars Mr. Robocop himself, Peter Weller. (You may also know the other screenwriter, Miguel Tejada-Flores, as the guy who wrote the original Revenge of the Nerds.) That's a fine bunch of people. The results should be dynamite, baby, but are more like a string of Black Cats. Why? I blame director Christian Duguay, the curiously tanned mastermind behind many straight-to-video films and TV movies. His CV is far less impressive than those other guys, and, as an auteurist bastard who believes that the director is the primary author of a film, I have to blame him. This is one of those movies that starts with written exposition in hard-to-read font scrolling down a black background while a solemnly dull narrator reads the stuff aloud.
I'm being a little hard on the guy, and his movie. Duguay is never going to be in the pantheon of filmmaking greats, but Screamers is far from horrible. The movie is visually pedestrian, and the characters are all types we've seen before, but the story is a good one, the special effects are mostly solid (with a few dated exceptions), and the screamers themselves are nifty little movie villains that combine the awesome forces of swords, killer robots, pod people, the ball from Phantasm, and the sandworms from Tremors.
The film is set in the relatively near future of 2078 on the distant planet of Sirius 6B. (I haven't read it yet, but the Dick story takes place on Earth during the Cold War.) The energy crisis has reached catastrophic proportions, so the people of Earth (as in most future-set American films, planet Earth just means Americans) have taken to the stars to find new energy sources. Sirius 6B turns out to be the answer to all the Earth's energy problems, but the mining of the energy source causes massive radiation. This leads to a civil war between the mining interests (the New Economic Block, or N.E.B.) and the workers who don't want to be radiated (the Alliance). The movie begins a decade into the war. Both sides are in a kind of desolate stalemate, holed up in their respective headquarters because they're both using sophisticated robotic killing machines that destroy any lifeforms that get in their way. These weapons, called screamers, are tiny robots equipped with blades. These robots have been placed underground, but burrow to the surface when they detect human life, making high-pitched screaming noises and flying through the air toward their target. The Alliance has developed wearable safety devices that block the robots from detecting their pulses, so they're currently sitting back at HQ and waiting for enough ass to get kicked for the war to stop. Unfortunately for everyone, the robots start to evolve on their own, scavenging anything they can find to upgrade their powers.
Thanks to some underhanded political machinations that fuck everybody over and are too boring to go into in detail, Alliance leader Peter Weller and another soldier must trek off into the desolate, screamer-infested planet to N.E.B. HQ. They meet a few people on their travels, including Roy Dupuis, who makes the bizarre acting choice of delivering his lines in a ridiculously affected gravelly tone that is more suited to a professional wrestling villain. Most of the stuff you expect to happen in sci-fi/horror/action/post-apocalypse/killer-robot movies happens. All of it is watchable, entertaining, and fun, but very little of it is distinctive, except for the screamers. Duguay is just not a very interesting filmmaker.
I usually have more to say, and if I'd read "Second Variety" I would write about the differences and similarities between the movie and Dick's story, but I haven't read it yet, so I'll refrain from spouting off about it. This is the kind of movie that probably works best if you're home sick and need something diverting to zone out to while you recover.
Fun facts about the future, according to this movie: You will be able to buy giant sunglasses that play music and project images of naked girls in the lenses. The music of the future is tepid, overproduced, commercial blues-pop that sounds suspiciously like it was recorded in the early 1990s. I can't wait for the future.