Somewhere in the mid-1990s, before Scream revived the genre, horror wasn’t in the best place. Arguably, the year 1995 was the nadir for horror in the decade of flannel and grunge. Yes, Se7en shocked audiences across cineplexes that year. Maybe you personally loved Demon Knight, though it’s hardly a classic. But Vampire in Brooklyn, Village of the Damned, The Mangler, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers weren’t lighting the world on fire. Hybrid mixes of science-fiction and horror – like The Puppet Masters and Species – were also pretty hit-and-miss. While a sci-fi thriller from a Philip K Dick story should have had potential Screamers is a largely forgotten mid-90s entry. Neither audiences nor critics gave it much notice
In 2078, on a distant mining planet, a decade-long conflict continues to play out. The New Economic Block, a mining company, has waged war on its miners and scientists, the ‘Alliance’, and left the planet wasted following nuclear strikes. Now remaining soldiers on both sides wait for the day when the war is over and they can come home. But beneath the planet’s surface, Artificial Intelligent Self-Replicating machines, or ‘screamers’, created by the Alliance as defense mechanisms, have turned against both sides. And they evolved.
Screamers is Heavy on Exposition, Low on Budget and Effects
Right from its long, sprawling text scrawl prologue, Screamers runs into problems. It’s a big information download, which quickly becomes a recurrent problem. Maybe screenwriters Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Dead & Buried) and Miguel Tejada-Flores adapted Screamers from a Philip K Dick novelette, Second Variety. Maybe O’Bannon and Tejada-Flores lost something in translation. Or perhaps Second Variety’s narrative was too dense for a 90-minute movie. Whatever the problem, Screamers is a clunky, expository-heavy sci-fi thriller. And when characters aren’t dropping key plot points in conversations, the dialogue sounds like something out of an 80s action cop movie. And with so many background plot points, Screamers never develops its characters or emotional stakes.
Whatever the problem, Screamers is a clunky, expository-heavy sci-fi thriller.
Sometimes big ideas need a big budget, too. Or a bit of innovation. In both of these regards, Screamers falls short. In addition to filtering some of Dick’s ideas into a more manageable story, director Christian Duguay could have hedged his bets by taking a less ambitious approach to the material. Even for a modest-budgeted mid-90s movie, Screamers looks cheap. In fact, most scenes involving the titular metal monstrosities are laughably bad. To his credit, Duguay keeps the story moving along at a nice pace. He even manages to build up a bit of suspense in the final act before succumbing to one too many false endings. But without a convincing threat, Screamers never feels scary or tense.
Screamers Has Ideas, But Never Gives Its Characters Much To Do
If you grew up in the 80s you’ll be happy see RoboCop’s Peter Weller (Leviathan) playing Commander Joseph Hendricksson. Even with some silly dialogue and a convoluted plot, Weller brings an ‘everyman’ swagger to the role that’s better than the movie itself. And horror fans who grew up in the 80s should immediately recognize Jennifer Rubin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, The Crush). If Weller doesn’t have much with which to work, Rubin’s stuck with even less material. And this is one of Screamers’ bigger problems – it’s filled with ideas, not characters.
…Screamers’ characters lack any depth that would fuel emotional conflict
What’s particularly frustrating is that one can sense there were plenty of opportunities for a good movie here. At a micro-level, Screamers’ characters lack any depth that would fuel emotional conflict. Yet characters stuck in a remote environment and locked in a pointless war for years should offer some chance for a rewarding arc. Instead Duguay et al offer a last-minute, forced romantic subplot that never resonates. Moreover, Dick’s original story seems like it was ripe for a modern re-telling as an allegorical warning about corporate greed. It’s certainly a theme co-writer O’Bannon – whose past writing credits include Alien – should have seen. But Screamers can’t seem to decide if it’s a thoughtful blend of science-fiction, horror, and big ideas or just a mindless retread.
Screamers Is Watchable For 90s Movie Fans, But a Skip For Everyone Else
Though it’s a watchable blend of science fiction, action, and horror, Screamers never approaches being a good movie. Duguay paces the convoluted premise nicely and achieves a bit of tension in the final act. But Screamers repeatedly kneecaps itself with expository-heavy dialogue and a tendency to overreach its limited budget. Mixed performances, unconvincing villains, and an unnecessary late-minute romance don’t help. Older cinephiles looking for some nostalgia may enjoy Screamers, but everyone else can just skip it.