Director – Christian Duguay, Screenplay – Dan O’Bannon & Miguel Tejada-Flores, Based on the Short Story Second Variety by Philip K. Dick, Producers – Franco Battista & Tom Berry, Photography – Rodney Gibbons, Music – Norman Corbeil, Visual Effects Supervisor – Ernest Farino, Digital Effects Supervisor – Richard Ostiguy, Digital Effects – Buzz Image Group, Physical Effects – Cineffects Productions Inc (Supervisor – Ryal Cosgrove), Mechanical Screamers/Stop Motion Animation – Chiodo Brothers Productions Inc (Supervisors – Charles, Edward & Stephen Chiodo), Makeup Effects – Adrien Morot, Screamer Design – Jim Bandush & Deak Ferrand, Production Design – Perri Gorrara. Production Company – Allegro Films/Triumph Films/Fuji Eight Co Ltd/Fries Film Co.
Peter Weller (Joseph Hendricksson), Jennifer Rubin (Jessica Hanson), Andy Lauer (Michael ‘Ace’ Jefferson), Roy Dupuis (Becker), Charles Powell (Ross), Ron White (Chuck Elbarak), Michael Caloz (David McEwen)
The year 2078. On the planet Sirius 6B, an alliance of miners have revolted against their corporate masters The New Economic Block or NEB when it was discovered that the mineral berynium they were mining was radioactive. A long protracted war has resulted. The Alliance’s principal weapon is a self-replicating robot known as the Screamer, which burrows beneath the sand and kills anything not wearing an Alliance wrist guard. A courier manages to get through to an Alliance bunker carrying a message from the NEB, saying that they want to make peace. However, the crashlanding of an Alliance troop ship immediately after reveals this message to be a fake. The bunker’s commander Joseph Hendricksson decides to set out on a trek to the NEB bunker to find out the truth for himself. As he gathers the company of two NEB soldiers and a black marketeer, he makes the discovery that the Screamers have evolved and are now capable of mimicking human form to the point that they are indistinguishable from the real thing. As the journey continues, it becomes apparent that some of Hendricksson’s travelling companions are Screamers.
Dan O’Bannon was a writer who developed a mastery of a certain kind of tough and unsentimental hard-edged science-fiction – O’Bannon co-wrote the likes of Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), Blue Thunder (1983), Lifeforce (1985) and Total Recall (1990), as well as directing the zombie film Return of the Living Dead (1985) and the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Resurrected (1992). A Dan O’Bannon film was always one to be welcomed – no matter the hamfistedness of the director assigned, the script was always well above the level of the average genre film in quality. Dan O’Bannon disappointingly all but vanished as a vital force in the 1990s and up until his death in 2009. Other than The Resurrected, all his work – Screamers and the horror film Hemoglobin/Bleeders (1997) – was made in Canada and adapted from his old scripts.
Screamers had been kicking around as a script for some time, having originally announced under the title of the Philip K. Dick short story it is based on Second Variety (1953). Screamers is a mixed effort but nevertheless a science-fiction film that is well above average. O’Bannon and collaborator Miguel Tejada-Flores, who is best known for the screenplays for Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Fright Night Part 2 (1989), set up a complex scenario that takes some time to absorb in terms of understanding the different warring factions, the situation on the planet and exactly what the rarely seen Screamers are. O’Bannon and Tejada-Flores are surprisingly faithful to Philip K. Dick’s short story – indeed, Dick-ophiles regard Screamers as the one Dick film that alters the original the least – with the only substantial change being the setting, which goes from The Moon where the UN was fighting Russian forces, to another planet and a different political milieu.
Director Christian Duguay earns pardon for his terrible Scanners sequels (see below). Duguay does a superb job in the build-up. The journey across the planet’s beautifully decayed industrial wasteland, all shot alternating between industrial locations and snowy Montreal wastes that have been enhanced by matte paintings, is excellent. There is a grippingly eerie sense of the journey building towards some strange revelation – of finding the message from one’s own side to be an illusion, the never-seen things scuttling through the sand, the disquiet eerieness of the scenes encountering the little boy where something seems not quite right, and the supremely Dick-esque paranoia of not knowing who in the group’s midst might be a Screamer. The venture into NEB bunker and the unworldly encounter with the skeletal Screamer is immensely suspenseful. There is something in these parts that favourably reminds of Aliens (1986) and its long unbearably drawn out suspense tracking creatures through a planetary labyrinth.
Unfortunately, the downside of the film is that it builds towards a climax that never arrives – there is no all-out showdown or dazzlingly transcendent revelation about the nature of the Screamers. What the film does instead is reveal most of its cast to be Screamers. However, we have suffered through too many bad clones of The Terminator (1984) for surprise revelations of people being androids to be anything more than ho-hum. After an impressive build-up, the film blows its third act and falls into cliches.
Worse it leaves a vast number of holes and implausibilities behind. Who sent the faked message to make peace with the NEB and why? Was it the Screamers or was it the Alliance’s own side back on Earth seeking to betray them? We never find out. Why do Screamers kill their own numbers? Why, for that matter, do they give their own side away? (In both cases, the revelation about the nature of the David android and the warning about the soldier androids who cry “Help me” come from people who are Screamers themselves). It is these pieces of B-movie plotting that mar what is otherwise two-thirds excellent and intelligent science-fiction film.
Screamers: The Hunting (2009) was a disappointing sequel.
Other Philip K. Dick adaptations include:– Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Impostor (2002), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Next (2007), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Total Recall (2012), Radio Free Albemuth (2014), the tv series adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (2015-9) and the tv anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (2017– ). The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (2000) is a fascinating documentary about Dick’s bizarre life.
Christian Duguay’s other films are:– Scanners II: The New Order (1991), Scanners III: The Takeover (1992), the thriller Live Wire (1992) about human bombs, the tv movie Model By Day (1994) from the comic-strip about a masked superheroine, the tv mini-series Joan of Arc (1999), the action film The Art of War (2000), the dire tv mini-series Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003), Human Trafficking (2005) and the horror film Boot Camp (2007).
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Production Design at this site’s Best of 1995 Awards).