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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.



Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.


Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50’s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.

It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.

They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.

But that’s not important now. Merely musing…

We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.

After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.

And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.

The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.

This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?

The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.

It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.

That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.

Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.

Not only has the original movie’s tagline become quite the cliche, such that it’s near impossible to riff on it because all the variants have been said, nearly everything else about it has been equally recycled into other, later pieces of popular media. Even to the day we see the influence of Alien and Aliens, in video-games from DOOM (originally supposed to be an Aliens game) to Dead Space (2008), and in movies like Sunshine and Pandorum and countless others. It’s a historical milestone in the genre of science-fiction, single-handedly lifting sci-fi/horror from dreck fiction to a level not seen since the classic Frankenstein films. Alien is a classic, Aliens is a classic. Alien 3 is one of the most underrated science-fiction films, or possibly films, of all time. Alien Resurrection is a story that can’t be approximated briefly in a cute sentence here.

The four Alien movies make up what is undoubtedly the greatest sci-fi movie series, and it’s about what scares us the most.

That was the origin in fact, that very question; Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got together and asked. They came up with one word, an r-word that you’ll probably guess at with ease. What if that happened to you? What if the thing on the other end was a goddamn alien creature with a big old alien penis? What if you were in space, and no one could hear you scream? What if you discovered that there was in the end, no hope, but in your own will to survive?

Thus Alien was born, but first, perhaps we should take a moment to recall Alien 0.5 – John Carpenter’s very first film, Dark Star. This movie starred Dan O’Bannon as a hippie astronaut among hippie astronaut, and his assignment was to chase an alien through the various corridors of the ship. That sounds familiar, only the alien in question is a beachball with rubber monster feet attached to it. I don’t think HR Giger had his hands on that one.

What’s interesting about Dark Star is not necessarily that it’s a great movie, but that it silently impacted science-fiction and nobody but nerds knows about it. Nerds and Danny Boyle I guess, who paid homage to the 70’s flick by naming one of his astronauts in Sunshine after a character in Dark Star, Pinbacker.

O’Bannon’s next project would be a bit more popular; Alien went on to be quite the commercial success, which really set Ridley Scott up for a sophomore slump in Blade Runner. It’s a shame that the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation grossed so little, because it put the director off of science-fiction for thirty years. Blade Runner and Alien truly stand out in Scott’s filmography because of it, and because so much attention and craftsmanship was put into the film’s look. Matchstick Men looks nice, but it doesn’t have the classic lighting composition and atmosphere that heighten the tension or create a sense of apocalyptic decay.

The production design in Alien indeed is legendary, as you’ll see it repeated several times over in sequels and in pieces of media that bear a resemblance. The movie, intitially entitled Star Beast, was just as cool to rip off as Star Wars and the later Blade Runner – it was fashionable. All of a sudden science-fiction had a sense of range to it, and this is all thanks to the visuals. Star Trek and Star Wars told us that we could see the great heighs of man as imagined by creative masters like Roddenbery and Lucas, while Alien and Blade Runner told us we could shove all of that. The two movies have the classic ‘used future,’ look, and it makes sense in either context.

Alien finds its seven crewmembers on the Nostromo, a Conrad reference that seems fitting after The Duelists, which was Scott’s debut. As we discover from an initial conversation over grubby food, they are blue-collar workers. They aren’t talking about saving the world from space vampires – they’re talking about shares and getting paid. These are the characters who are established at the front of the film, and we get to know them by the time they reach LV-426, which I don’t think is named in the first movie, but will be revisited later.

The movie moves incredibly slowly, but it has to. There is narrative progression, and this happens on many levels. Because it’s a movie about what scares us the most, it’s also a movie about reaching out and touching that fear, as one would expect on the frontier of space. Thus we see our heroes experimenting with the alien facehugger, noting that it has acid blood and tightens around Kane’s neck when threatened, and then rallying together to try to find a cat-sized alien which is now loose in the ship after the film’s most iconic scene – the chestburster.

We assume that it’s cat-sized because that’s how it left Kane’s dead body, skittering off the table and into the depths of the Nostromo. When we find that it’s not, that it’s a rather large creature, we can’t be sure of anything. And that’s when the movie begins to really take off.

First, we’re frightened of the creature. It becomes a ubiquitous threat, always hiding somewhere on the ship, ready to pounce with its terrible tongue-jaws-dick. Then, we’re frightened of the Company. We discover that they’re so goddamn cold they consider the crew to be expendable, something that would repeat in every other movie about aliens, from Predator to Alien Lockdown. Then we’re afraid of each other – Ash turns out to be a robot, which is very phildickian. This provides for one of the most intense scenes in the movie, as Ash is bleeding and vomiting this horrible white ‘blood.’

Finally, we become frightened of the ship itself, our surroundings. It’s always been creepy, as the description of Alien as a haunted house movie in space is fair, but towards the end of the movie, it becomes hostile. Fog is blowing everywhere, emergency lights are flashing, alarms are ringing and Mother, the ship’s computer, is counting down until an explosion. Caught in the middle is Ripley, who’s had to experience the fears of all of the above, and is now struggling against the last.

We can only overcome these fears by being reborn, which is why the ship is the final thing to be feared, other than the fact that it makes for some great hallway-running sequences, which is also iconic. Ripley is reborn when she takes the shuttle out from the Nostromo, essentially breaking away from Mother. That’s not the end of the movie however, although we do get a sequence akin to Metroid‘s perfect clear ending.

If that was the end of the movie, the victory over her many fears would not have a measure, and the movie would be about nothing. The alien returns, and Ripley is able to defeat it by being calm and a badass. She harpoons it and sends it flying out the airlock, and she’s the only survivor, save one lucky cat. She is able to have this victory because of her will to survive, which is the only thing that can save you from your worst fears.

This is the point of the movie because we have to explore our worst fears to get to that point. That’s how we have one of the most excellent horror films ever crafted, filled with glorious set pieces and surprisingly intense moments that hold up thirty years later.

There is however one point of contention I have. It has to do with Ripley, who is played by Sigourney Weaver, the one recurring character (well, besides the titular alien) across all four movies. Considering that Ripley has at this point become at archetype, such that even to the day she has characters modelled after her – Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing prequel is taking on that role, which I look forward to – as she is the most famous heroine in science-fiction film, it’s disappointing to realize that her origin in Alien is born out of horror than feminism.

Indeed she is the Final Girl, and this is because she is a female, and because we assumed Tom Skerrit, who gets top billing, was going to be the last one out to shut Nostromo‘s lights. Once he dies, we can’t be sure who it’s going to be, thus creating more horror for the viewer because the Alien could jump out and kill anyone. She is the hero to take away audience comfort, not because ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it was a girl kicking ass?’ I’m sure there was some of that, but it’s certainly expanded upon more in the James Cameron (naturally) sequel, Aliens from seven years later.

For a more in depth look at Alien and the Alien series, be sure to check out Roz Kaveney’s From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science-fiction Film


Death Threats

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