Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: January 29th 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Screamers boasts the sort of pedigree that immediately commands you to take notice. Bearing a screenplay originally written by Dan OíBannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) and adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short story and featuring Peter Weller in its leading role, it inspires grandiose visions of recapturing the former glory of previous genre efforts. At best, you might expect a taut, suspenseful, thought-provoking glimpse into a dystopian future; at worst, you might still expect some finely-crafted pulp, especially with Miguel Tejada-Flores (Revenge of the Nerds, Fright Night Part 2) doing a pass on the script.
You set these expectations at your own peril, however, as the truth lies somewhere a few rungs down the ladder: ultimately, Screamers is the sort of movie thatís mostly notable because it allows you to marvel at a bunch of explosions, severed limbs, and a scene where Weller wields a huge flamethrower. You might argue that a movie could aspire for worse, and you wouldnít be wrong; however, but itís inarguable that you can get that sort of thing in more accomplished, worthwhile films.
Which is not to say that Screamers is completely without merit. If nothing else, itís certainly ambitious in flinging the audience to a far-flung future where humanity has colonized the cosmos in order to fuel a long-running war on Earth. Sirius 6B is a pivotal planet in the conflict, as itís home to a critical energy source that also happens to be radioactive, thus putting the miners at odds with New Economic Bloc, the company thatís exploiting their labor. A full-blown, decades-long conflict has reached something like a stalemate: both sides are dug in, unwilling to negotiate any further.
Until, of course, an NEB emissary arrives at the resistance doorstep offering just that: a truce to possibly end the war. Resistance commanding officer Joe Hendrickson (Weller) isnít buying it, especially when his earthbound superiors inform him that peace talks are already underway back home. Fresh-faced, wide-eyed grunt Ace Jefferson (Andrew Lauer) has a startling rejoinder, though: no such talks are happening, a revelation that leads Hendrickson to assume theyíve been left to fend for themselves on Sirius 6B. Thoroughly weary and up-to-here with this shit, Hendrickson enlists Jefferson for a two-man mission across the planet to enemy lines, where theyíll hopefully join up with the opposition to finally leave this forsaken rock.
Itís a treacherous journey, mostly because the planet is infested with the titular Screamers, a technological device deployed by resistance forces to hunt down and kill their oppressors. Think the Graboids from Tremors, only theyíre damn cyborgs. For a brief moment, it seems like thatís exactly what Screamerswill be: Tremors, but on a frozen, barren wasteland planet. The opening sceneówhich follows several mouthfuls of expository narrationóholds promise in this regard, as the NEB soldier arrives at the resistance outpost, only to have a screamer reduce him to an eviscerated heap. With this terrific opening volley, Screamers signals the type of movie it could be: a tense, claustrophobic techno-thriller with gory payoffs. Considering how it ends up, one could argue that this is the type of movie it should be.
But because it isnít content to just be Space Tremors, Screamers continually fidgets around. Harboring ambitions beyond those base expectations isnít inherently bad; rather, it never quite settles on being anything. Like a college student cycling through majors, it skims and dabbles without really committing, The filmís first major turn comes when Hendrickson realizes the Screamers have somehow automated and evolved all on their own, an admittedly clever revelation that arrives with a pretty decent twist.
Unfortunately, said twist is pretty much run into the ground: like the Screamers themselves, the film contorts and shifts through various modes: for a minute, itís a men-on-a-mission movie with Hendrickson and Jefferson trucking across the planet, eventually with an orphan in tow. When itís tired of trying this on, it returns to a different sort of techno-paranoia, only itís more reminiscent of The Thing or even the android stuff from the Alien franchise. Hidden identities, shifty looks, questionable motives, and tons of bickering inside a giant refinery left over from an 80s action movie define this stretch of the film, where even more characters (including one played by Jennifer Rubin, so weíre not too mad about that one) appear once Hendrickson reaches the NEB base.
Eventually, it all spills over into a huge action set-piece with this ragtag band of survivors mowing down tons of advanced Screamers with machine guns and flamethrowers. And, for whatever reason, even this isnít enough, as Screamers lingers on with a belabored fourth actóthis thing might not know what exactly it wants to be, but it definitely aspires to be something, damnit, and it just wonít quit.
Usually, Iíd find that admirable, but the execution is largely uninspired. Director Christian Duguayís direction is workmanlike but unremarkable: mostly, he just seems content to have his camera soak in the gritty, textured production design. The world of Sirius 6B truly feels like several miles of bad road, with its unforgiving, icy landscapes and its grungy, steamy industrial structures. Screamers hails from that distant, almost lost era when its ilk could still look filthy and a little disreputableóthereís something terrific about 90s action movies that just feel like theyíve been soaked in a layer of grime that nobody bothered to scrub off, and theyíre better off for it.
Of course, it also has a foot in another, more modern era since it arrived right at the precipice of CGI becoming more commonplace and mainstream. Those intrusions are brief but crucial here because theyíve almost been surgically implanted to undercut all of the big, rousing moments. You want to cheer when Weller blows away the movieís big baddie, but youíre left gagging at the unsightly digital effects work that would have only been passable in 1995 if it appeared in a Playstation. You can imagine how it plays now, over 20 years later. In many ways, itís representative of how Screamers canít really keep up with its ambition: it wants so desperately to leave an impression but has no chance of outrunning its scattershot script and limited effects resources.
Weller is obviously the glue that holds this ramshackle story together, bringing absolute conviction to a weathered, jaded solider who just wants to stop phoning in this sham of a cold war. His genuine sense of dignity provides a pathos thatís truly beyond what Screamers requires; despite taking inspiration from Dickís short story, it favors schlock and twists over moody existentialism.
To truly calibrate expectations, itís best to see Screamers for what it is: a twitchy, frantic attempt at vaguely ripping off a lot of its more prestigious genre predecessors. In many ways, itís reminiscent of the rash of low-grade Italian knock-offs that shamelessly blistered grindhouses and video stores throughout the 80sóonly itís Canadian as hell, right down to its modesty. Its biggest sin might be that it isnít shameless enough, as only a few brief momentsóincluding the diabolical final shotódial into the correct, brazenly schlocky wavelength.
After earning a cult following (and a direct-to-video sequel in 2009), Screamers finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy with a top-notch HD presentation and a nice assortment of extras courtesy of Scream Factory. The transfer rightfully retains the filmís gritty textures, and the soundscape is certainly busy enough to give your speakers more of a workout than many of Screamís titles, which tend to be more low-budget and small scale.
While Scream didnít commission a lengthy retrospective documentary for this release, the quartet of interviews does an admirable job in its own right. Clocking in at over an hour in total, they feature Duguay, Rubin, Tejada-Flores, and producer Tom Berry, all of whom discuss their careers before focusing in on Screamers itself. Itís a niceóif not piecemealóoverview that features a glaring omission in Weller, though itís hardly surprising he couldnít be tracked down for an interview. The disc does also include a trailer, so itís a pretty solid outing as opposed to the absolute home runs Scream has produced in the past.
I know this one has more devoted fans that may be left wanting for more, but itís also difficult to say it hasnít been done some justice considering it was relegated to Sonyís MOD service just a few years ago. Plus, you know, itís a movie that ends with an ominous shot of a damn teddy bear. Some might argue that it ainít meant to be Shakespeare, but a character does paraphrase some lines from The Merchant of Venice at one point. Iím afraid you did this to yourself, Screamers.
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