Dick Spacey: Decade Old Low Budget Yarn Spun from Sci-Fi Genius Scares at the Top of its Lungs

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I don't know why it is lately, but I can't get my arse to the movie theater to catch anything new. Maybe its my Netflix subscription, which affords me an unlimited supply of films I haven't seen or want to see again all for the price of two newer offerings, that has me on house arrest. I'm sure my digital cable's new Fearnet feature isn't helping popcorn vendors, either. And in searching for films to write about, I've identified a way that I can be of more than just passing value by trying to unearth some of the lesser gems that some horror fans may have overlooked. In that spirit, this time around, my choice of reviews came most unexpectedly from a regular old movie channel. And when a film based on a short story by sci-fi guru Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly) and adapted by sc-fi/horror royalty like Dan O'Bannon (Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall) is on the tube menu, its often wise to stay well and truly put.

Screamers was released in 1995, and although I'd missed it in theaters, I did manage to catch it on video many years later. I remembered liking it, but many of the details were fuzzy, which is no surprise given my grungy, rock star lifestyle in the mid-to-late 90's. Revisiting it had a comfortable blend of nostalgia and fresh expectation, perfect for a chilly Sunday afternoon nursing yet another hangover. And as a huge fan of all of Dick's and O'Bannon's work, as well as a sucker for apocalyptic, futuristic thrillers, well...the local cineplex with its hordes of early Christmas shoppers would just have to wait yet again.

The film opens with a rather dense and moderately lengthy text scroll informing us that there's a war going on across the dangerously radioactive surface of the remote mining planet Sirius B between The Alliance � a group of scientists that want the environmentally calamitous mining process of a precious new energy resource called Berynium to stop � and The New Economic Block � a group determined to wipe out that opposition by any nuclear means necessary. To combat the superior NEB forces, The Alliance, heavier on righteousness than wisdom, decided to create an "autonomous sword" weapon that can lay waste to ground forces from behind the safety of their fortified bunkers. These are called "screamers" due to the stifling shriek they emit, and when we first see them, they're little buzz-saw like robots that travel underground until they find a living thing to chop into manageable, travel sized pieces. The problem, we come to find, is that while The Alliance has a wristband neutralizing method to render those donning it unappetizing to the screamer palette, it doesn't always work. And when its discovered that the killer toasters have gained enough intelligence to reproduce new and improved models on their own? Let's just say those still alive and loyal to the newly abandoned Alliance mission can be assured they'll be receiving their share of "severance" pay once all is said and done.

The main character is Colonel Hendricksson, played by a post Robocop Peter Weller, who proves that he doesn't need a flashy, Swiss army cop uniform to lend an authoritative � yet likable � presence to the proceedings. And once he discovers that the whole of his operation, as well as the enemy, have been hung out to dry by their earthbound command on the war-ravaged planet, he sets out across the screamer infested tundra to make peace with the remaining NEB contingent. Accompanied by a sharpshooter that crash-landed near The Alliance base while on his way to fight a continuation of the war on another planet, Hendricksson is unaware of the existence of new screamer models. And its because of this ignorance, combined with a soft core underplayed deftly by Weller, that a man of such practical, soldiering experience would fail to question the survival skills of the small, orphan boy clutching a teddy bear that he runs into along the way. What he discovers about the wee lad is hardly shocking, but only a precursor to the horrors yet to befall he and his troops.

I've read a few scathing reviews of Screamers, and as best I can tell, allegations that its cliched and "borrows too liberally" from other films are evidence that someone hasn't been doing their homework. Many of the familiar elements can be attributed to the behind the scenes players here who have explored them in other moments of their careers. I'll admit to being a bit too forgiving of certain plot decisions and pretty much anything that manages to suspend my disbelief in what is essentially a slightly overreaching attempt at a sci-fi/horror tent pole blockbuster for 11 million bucks (the reported budget), but for me, this "little B-movie that could" boasts an effective alloy of science fiction and horror.

For one, the complex back story and overall mythology is well laid out, supplied in measured doses throughout several action-packed plot points and incorporating various methods of exposition that refuse to cloy or insult us. Also, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers flavored horror is never overcooked, and supplies enough genuine creep-outs and scares to stand proudly up there with far more expensive titles produced by the genre in the last decade. Sure, there are some SFX and set designs that could use an upgrade, but the refreshing lack of overacting CGI (save a scene stealing bit of stop-action involving a very alien-looking screamer that would have brought back some bad memories for Ripley were she to have showed up) forced Canadian director Christian Duguay (The Art of War, Joan of Arc) to rely on suspense, built-in surprise and character clues to amp up the fear factor. The dialogue is lazy at times, but still has bits of classic O'Bannon, who likes to inject humor and pithy wordplay without ever taking his eye off the tone (a la Joss Whedon), and lucky for him � and us � he had a decent enough group to work with. Jennifer Rubin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Crush, Road Kill) does a more than serviceable job adding some much needed sex appeal to the final third of the story, and the "minor" characters (hardly anyone is merely set dressing in an O'Bannon screenplay) are all engaging and memorable.

If there's one thing to be said about Philip K. Dick, its that, while there is much love in his characters, they all harbor a deep distrust in human beings and for good reason. This is something I think he shares with O'Bannon, and maybe why Screamers is the second of his stories adapted for the screen that the Alien director has tackled. Throughout Dick's literary career, he has always questioned what it means to be human, and because he has explored the subject with such invention, skill and aplomb, so do we. Evidence of his influence can be found everywhere on TV and screen, and if the new "Battlestar Galactica" is any indication, we may just find the answers he sought up until his death in 1982.

Or maybe, as Dick seemed to believe, our inventions will find them for us.

Reviewed by Scott Norton