Perhaps we should be thankful; these current days of Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg have set a precedent for Philip K. Dick adaptations–they’re big deals. His name finally means something to somebody, and he no longer languishes in the low-budget genre ghettos. I on the other hand will approve of this shift in Hollywood with a nod or too, but reminisce fondly on the days of old, when the early Dick movie reflected the early Dick novels–they were small. Now, Total Recall and Blade Runner were big productions, but going through the years we have Next and A Scanner Darkly and of course Screamers, which were either indies, or given little fanfare, or not taken seriously, like the classic Arnoldo. Or all of the above. I could say–without vouching for Next–that they all constitute cult classics, and in the case of Screamers, it makes perfect sense.

Here we have a joining of names that would tickle any nerd–Dan “Alien” O’Bannon, Peter “Robocop Across the 8th Dimension” Weller, and Philip K. Dick. It’s a movie about killer robots, a war in space, and it’s a gritty, low-budget actioner that’s high on imagination. It also becomes something of an echo of John Carpenter’s The Thing, although I’m sure the original short story predates the 1982 flick. Screamers deals exclusively with Dick’s “What is human?” question, exploring the human-as-machine theme as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though not in the same way.

As Steven Owen Godersky puts it, “Phil Dick’s third major theme is his fascination with war and his fear and hatred of it.” Screamers doesn’t use its war between the Alliance and the New Economic Block as mere backdrop as Total Recall does with its rebellion; it’s integral to the theme, as war will lead naturally to questions of humanity. The robot metaphor works as well as it does in other Dicks, but here it allegorizes that classic phrase, “Man’s inhumanity to man.” People are fucking each other over on Sirius 6B, fighting wars and leaving soldiers for dead. What better way to visualize this than to have a gunshot wound be filled with wires and servos?

Peter Weller, playing a character named Hendricksson, which I believe was his name on 24 as well, decides to make peace with the other side, but must trek across Screamer-infested, radioactive, winter terrain. He takes a young soldier Jefferson along with him, the lone survivor of a spaceship crash–he was headed to fight on another planet, which signals to the Alliance that Earth has moved on, and they didn’t get the memo, or weren’t supposed to. The idea of a faceless organization stabbing its expendables in the back is a common thread in the O’Bannon canon, and here it’s the military. We can’t trust these people.

So old enemies become friends, and they’re united against a common enemy–machines. Not only those who left them for dead on Sirius 6B, but the Screamers, which are Alliance-invented killer robots. Indeed Hendricksson and Jefferson meet up with two NEB soldiers and a black market merchant when they reach the enemy base, and must travel back to the Alliance compound to escape. Along the way they find something troubling, a little boy named David who turns out to be an advanced species of deadly Screamer.

Concern. Not only have the Screamers evolved by their own accord, they’ve become perfect illusions. The Screamers began as horrific weapons of man’s design, which tear soldiers’ limbs off before going in for the kill, as seen in the beginning of the movie. Now they look human–the line between human and killer machine has blurred, it seems. So this proves to be quite the conundrum, as Hendricksson will discover that another variation of Screamer is a wounded soldier, and there’s an as of yet unidentified “Second Variety.” One thing is known–the Screamers will repeat things because they can’t think of anything smarter to say.

This creates instant paranoia on the desolate battlefield of Sirius 6B, and we’re not sure who to trust. The final twist in the movie, which I shouldn’t spoil but would love to talk about, is essentially a repeat of what happens in Blade Runner–the line, it’s just so damn blurry. What does that say about us?

The premise in Screamers is great. Pure phildickian, and a setup for thought-provoking scenarios that make this film stand out among other scifi action movies. Helping it in this regard is the production design and art direction. The movie looks fantastic on a conceptual level. The ruins of industrial cityscapes, the bunkers embedded in hills, the underground laboratories–very classic imagery. Add on top of that that Screamers is Aliens, Doom, and all those movies where you have soldiers with big scifi rifles checking corners in metal hallways–there’s pretty much nothing I appreciate more in science-fiction film. Eventually the crew comes across the site of a massacre that screams Dead Space and Aliens: this was a settlement of some sort, complete with that Weyland-Yutani propoganda about colonizing a better world of tomorrow.

So yes, we have soldiers and futury locations, and they’re scouring those locations. Unfortunately the hostile element–the titular Screamers–are to me very uninteresting visually. They’re either little boys, Terminators in the flesh, or stop-motion robots. The stop-motion I like, but this movie being as low-budget as it is, they’re not on screen for very long. From a writer’s standpoint, I understand why the Screamers make sense as little tiny robots, but I much prefer big enemies in my scifi action movies. I’ll call this the Gort principle, for any of you who actually saw the 2008 remake, you’ll know that Gort goes on a rampage as a 500-foot tall robot, and then decides to manifest a cloud of nano-robots. Sigh, boring. Nanorobots can’t shoot lasers or smash buildings!

In Aliens and Doom and most recently The Thing, we had monsters that were either human-sized, or a little bit bigger. You’re probably wondering at this point what the freaking deal is, but there is a specific product resultant from an enemy’s size. Enemies are meant to be shot at, but when they’re tiny, shooting is often discouraged. It’s less exciting. This is all on a visual level, of course. In the end, I just wish there’d be a human-sized robot that didn’t have to look like a human. From what I can remember of this movie’s sequel (which will be covered soon), aside from the stupid The Descent-esque ending, there might be some stuff there.

But as it stands with Screamers, all we got are robots that simply don’t look that interesting, save the Type 3 fish-monster-dinosaur looking thing. That’s a nerdgripe for sure, and very minor, because at the end of the day, this movie kicks ass. It’s totally entertaining, and aside from some hinky acting every now and again, gets the taste of Paycheck out of your mouth. This movie also reminded me a lot of Doomsday, for one reason: there was an attention to the minor characters. In Doomsday, there were two or three redshirts, identifiable immediately. But they were great characters who had fun chemistry between them, and I didn’t want them to die. I liked Jefferson, and one could tell that Hendricksson did too. The NEB soldiers were actual characters, they weren’t just nameless grunts. This attention to detail is perhaps expected from a script co-written by Dan O’Bannon, but also telling of the movie’s quality and standing among movies of its ilk.

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