Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Screamers (1996)

    In which the fate of mankind lies within a teddy bear...

    Peter Weller has to be one of the stranger leading men we’ve gotten out of Hollywood. With his gaunt, reptilian looks and a deep-set intellectual voice, he became a go-to star in science fiction films for years, playing iconic characters like Buckaroo Banzai and RoboCop. So you would think that movie starring Weller, co-written by Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and based on a short story by legendary sci-fi auteur Philip K. Dick, would lead to film worthy of discussion. Sadly, 1996’s Screamers can be added to the list of derivative, post-apocalyptic future schlock that assaulted audiences throughout the eighties and nineties, a film so rambling its hour-and-forty minute runtime feels much, much longer.

    Before the movie even properly begins you know you’re in trouble, as paragraph after paragraph scrolls by, over-explaining a convoluted backstory that most sci-fi and fantasy stories use to make up for their general lack of depth. Far-off into the future, a new source of energy is discovered elsewhere in the universe, leading to companies hiring off-planet workers to mine the new, valuable element. But things don’t go as planned, and conditions worsen for the employees, getting so bad that they stage an uprising against their corporate masters. The war rages on for years, and the Alliance thinks they have the upper hand upon inventing a new weapon, the Autonomous Mobile Sword, nick-named "screamers" for the sound they make while attacking. But things go horribly wrong once again, as the screamers gain self-awareness and begin to self-replicate, forcing both sides of the war to work together.

    Considering Dick’s original short story (“Second Variety”) took place in a possible future where the Cold War turned into an actual war, you can see much has been changed in the translation. O’Bannon butchered another of Dick’s stories to great effect in Total Recall, but is less successful here, although it’s unclear how much of his original script (heavily rewritten before filming) made it into the final movie. Regardless, the movie’s a bit of a disaster, taking the stock grungy look of 90’s desolate sci-fi and managing to make it look even less interesting. The screamers are supposed to be a big threat, but they’re about as scary as the cloud of dust blown up to signal their presence. The movie comes close to establishing something interesting when it’s revealed that the screamers can now take human form, but never develops any sort of tension in figuring out who’s human and who’s not. The whole film feels like a cheap TV movie (fitting, as that’s where director Christian Duguay got his start), and with about the same level of acting, apart from Weller. Here he gives off a world-weariness in his part of rebel army leader Joe Hendrickson, in a performance that you could kind of see as a reflection of the actor’s own state of mind - tired of appearing in vapid sci-fi drek, shit film after shit film. Perhaps it’s not really a performance after all…

    The rest of the cast overacts all-around, the worst being a pair of corporate soldiers Weller joins up with later on, one who has a fondness for quoting Shakespeare (note to screenwriters: there‘s no way to show how little you know about Shakespeare than to randomly quote him in your script). The other soldier the script pays so little attention to, it becomes a joke in the movie how he seems only capable of saying the same line over and over again. Weller also gets a sidekick of the fresh-faced variety, whose sole purpose for existence is to do stupid things that only Weller can get them out of, showing off how much of a badass he is and how he’s so much smarter than everyone else. There’s also a female character, but you already know exactly how her relationship with Weller ends if you’ve ever seen a movie before. Let’s just say that the movie ends on twist after twist after twist, and just when you think it’s twisted itself of all the obvious clichés, it manages to find at least two more.

    The film comes close to being “so bad it’s good,” like a deliriously stupid scene where Weller destroys a facility overrun with screamers by shooting an atomic bullet (that miraculously doesn’t harm himself or his party), or the very last shot in which a teddy bear proves to be the harbinger of humanity’s doom. But an evening spent with Screamers is closer to an endurance test than anything else - by the time the credits rolled, I was almost screaming myself.

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