Philip K. Dick stories often make for well-received films, like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly . Next—the one with Nicolas Cage as a clairvoyant magician, which strays a lot from its source material—might be the most bizarre Dick adaptation. But Screamers is easily the most underrated.
Screamers premiered in late 1995—the year of the OJ trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Tokyo subway gas attacks. The script, by Alien and Total Recall scribe Dan O’Bannon (with an assist from Miguel Tejada-Flores), updates Dick’s 1953 short story “Second Variety” from Cold War paranoia to pre-Y2K paranoia, though it’s set in 2078. Instead of taking place on an Earth wasted by nuclear battles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the action unfolds on Sirius 6B, a former mining colony ravaged by years of war and radiation pollution. A decade ago, the two sides were the corporate NEBs, who ran the mining operations, and the scrappy workers known as the Alliance. But after years of fighting, Sirius 6B’s human population has grown scant, and weary of isolation.
It’s an elaborate set-up, and it takes Screamers maybe too long to get through all the backstory. The three most important takeaways from the first half of the film are: 1) Peter Weller’s Alliance commander, Hendricksson, is an old-school type who listens to Mozart, collects rare coins, and still moons over the romance he abandoned when he shipped off to outer space; 2) The residents of Sirius 6B have been purposefully kept way out of touch with what’s happening on Earth, for reasons as-yet unknown; 3) The Screamers—the Alliance’s fleet of self-propelled weapons, that are as sharp and fast as they are horrifically loud—have somehow managed to reproduce among themselves, as well as evolve.
The first point makes for the film’s most/only compelling character. And of course, Hendricksson will fall for the only pretty lady left on Sirius 6B (fun fact: she’s played by A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors bad girl Jennifer Rubin). And the second adds conspiracy thrills to the story. But the third development soon becomes the most important.
The title of the Dick story, “Second Variety,” refers to the new, self-engineered varieties of Screamers. Though the Alliance created these freaky weapons (and, importantly, a small device that each soldier wears that renders them invisible to Screamers), they’ve lost control of their own inventions. The upgraded versions don’t look like they used to—and they’ve become more sophisticated in other ways, too. The creepy waif-bot, “David,” preys on human kindness and bides its time, waiting to attack until the moment is right and the most victims can be annihilated at once.
And on a planet where kids are an anomaly, further evolution for more efficient infiltration is the obvious next step. As Hendricksson and the ragtag group of survivors he spends most of the movie running around with soon realize, nobody can be trusted. O’Bannon’s script, which has some obvious Alien echoes, also recalls The Thing and other tales of science-fiction paranoia in these later scenes. Anyone can be a Screamer, and there’s no way of telling until it’s too late.
Screamers is not a perfect movie. It was made in Canada (director Christian Duguay’s other big credit is 2000 Wesley Snipes action flick The Art of War), and its lower budget means that its special effects—particularly when compared to Hollywood releases of the same era, like Apollo 13 and Independence Day—are notably B-grade. Its cast of (mostly) unknowns delivers some uneven acting, which doesn’t help sell the story’s believability.
Also ... having the baddies scream every time they attack is just unpleasant on every level. Your eardrums will hate you forever.
But Weller is solid as a man who has seen, and endured, a veritable boatload of shit even before facing the events of Screamers. He’s tired. Exhausted, even. When his routine of a decade suddenly changes, he’s still ready to fight, but he’s also more than ready to hope that something good is still possible in his life.
“Second Variety” and Screamers both end with “Oh ... holy crap” reveals, with the key difference being that the movie’s Hendricksson doesn’t yet know what the audience does: further chaos awaits, and it’s heading well beyond the atmosphere of Sirius 6B. It’s an admittedly familiar way to end the movie—but it slams home its dystopian message perfectly.