Monday, March 22, 2010


I remember when I was younger seeing the trailer for the movie Screamers (1995) and writing it off as another mindless horror film. It was certainly billed that way (reference the poster at left - "The last scream you hear will be your own!"), which was unfortunate because in the end it was, in my opinion, a sci-fi thriller with a really cool story concept. It was thus not surprising to later discover it was based one of Philip K. Dick's writings. I finally watched it one night - maybe it was on cable - and the scenes just stuck with me for years until I finally got hold of it via Netflix a few years back and watched it again. I can understand why it flopped - the acting and dialogue are very B-level material, and parts of the ending border on ridiculous. Nonetheless, I think it is worth a watch for any sci-fi fan.

Here's a basic synopsis from memory (details may be off). It all takes place on a remote desert mining planet occupied by two earth factions at war over the precious energy saving resource found there. An outpost on one side gets word that the war back home is escalating and they will be stuck on the planet for something like 9 years. The leader (Peter Weller) takes a team across the desert on a mission to call a truce with the other side and figure out how to get home. The twist is that both sides had created underground factories that replicated mechanized weapons nicknamed "screamers" because of the sound they made when they would lock on a target. The only way to keep your own weapons from attacking you was by sticking some vibration device into the ground. The screamers started as mouse-like units that crept under the sand looking for targets. The underground factories were intelligent enough to make improvements to the outputs. Over the years they continued to replicate units which became more intelligent and deadly, until, rumor had it, they started looking like human beings so they could infiltrate the camps and strike at the right moment. Eventually the screamers become the main problem and the goal becomes simply getting off the planet alive.

Some noteworthy aspects of the film: First, it has a masterfully woven suspense profile. Lot's of "Oh my God, get out of there!" moments. The whole "One of us could be one of THEM" dynamic is played out for much of the movie. The fact that you don't know the nature of the next manifestation of screamer unit you will encounter, etc. Second, although I admit it was over the top, the raw emotion of the characters and their interactions with each other does a good job of drawing you into the story. Finally, the whole context and premise of the setup takes an age old theme - man's greed leads to war, which leads to arms race, which ultimately backfires on himself - and gives it a fresh new twist. It's a treat if you can kick back and look past the low budget.

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