The mining planet Sirius 6B has been ravaged by a war between two competing companies, the NEB and The Alliance. The war has decimated the personnel on both sides and devastated the production facilities. Alliance commander Joe Hendricksson receives a NEB message with an offer for truce and safe passage through their territory. He travels through the radioactively contaminated wasteland towards the enemy base, constantly on the watch to avoid attacks of autonomous combat machines called Screamers. During his journey he realizes that the Screamers have evolved into something far more dangerous that threatens all remaining human life on the planet.
Screamers is based on the short story Second Variety from Philip K. Dick. Apparently written by Dan O’Bannon in parallel with his script for Total Recall, it lay dormant for many years before the decision was taken to make a movie from it. This may explain partially why many aspects of it feel somewhat antiquated for a Sci-Fi production from the mid-1990s, even though that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The setting of Screamers is depressing and desolate. The nuclear wasteland and run-down military and industrial facilities are presented appropriately, dark brown and grey are the dominating colors. The overall tone of the fairly intelligent dialogues is also thoroughly nihilistic, topics include reflections on the absurdity of the situation on the planet, and the misery of life in general. The beginning of the movie has a vibe similar to Dino Buzatti’s classic existential novel “The Tartar Steppe” about a battalion of soldiers stationed in a garrison at the end of the world who were supposed to defend it against an enemy they were not even sure existed.
The exchanges between the protagonists are certainly one of Screamers’ strong points. If the movie would have continued on the path where it began, it could have become a compelling story about the agony of people with a pointless task on a forgotten planet. Things take a slightly more conventional route, though, once Hendricksson begins his journey towards the NEB military base. The plot has some clever elements and twists, but brought nothing new to the table in 1995. The key concept of self-replicating and evolving machines that turn on their creators was certainly original when Dick published his story in the 1950s, but this topic was already processed in the two Terminator movies that were released before Screamers.
Possibly to make up for the absence of a truly original story the makers tried to spice things up by throwing in a plethora of ideas and tropes from other Sci-Fi productions that came before Screamers. You will find elements from movies such as Dune, Aliens, The Terminator, Star Wars, Predator, and of course Blade Runner. And this list is not even exhaustive. None of these elements are displayed excessively, though. They’re all more like gadgets added to the movie, so they don’t distract too much from the story.
Peter Weller carries the movie as the only big name in it. He gives an even-tampered performance as witty and gloomy military commander, who is certainly not a hero but knows when to get tough. Roy Dupuy plays Hendricksson’s semi-antagonist, and indulges in some cheesy macho-style overacting that makes it difficult to take him seriously.
The special effects are almost all analogue with matte and stop-motion effects that were a bit outdated in 1995. Still, everything is executed convincingly with the techniques that were used. The atmosphere of Screamers is really elevated by the beautifully drawn backgrounds of the decaying futuristic industrial architecture that were projected into a barren winter landscape in the foreground. Screamers is not an action movie, but there’s a sufficient amount of gunfire and explosions to also satisfy the lower instincts.
Despite utilizing a seemingly endless array of familiar Sci-Fi tropes, Screamers is a good mix of a reasonably intelligent story, an atmospheric journey through a post-nuclear wasteland, and well-done old-school special effects.