Automatons And Cigarettes: A Look Back At Screamers

Automatons And Cigarettes: A Look Back At Screamers

Screamers was written for the screen by the one and only Dan O’bannon, and adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short by the name of “Second Variety”. The story takes place on the planet Sirius 6B, a former mining planet, rich with berynium, which was once thought to be the answer to Earth’s energy crisis. Soon it was discovered that the mining of berynium, releases a deadly radio active gas, and a war is waged by former miners and scientists against the “N.E.B”, or “New Economic Block” to put a stop to it. Decades later, the war still in progress, a glimmer of hope is seen, and a possibility of world peace may be on the horizon. After a transport ship carrying a nuclear reactor crashes outside a military base, it becomes clear that there will be no peace, and in fact, the war has been escalated. Berynium has been discovered on another planet, and both sides are en route. One determined to set up their mining efforts, and the other hell bent on stopping them.

I hadn’t seen “Screamers” since the late ’90s, but I instantly noticed that it may be more relevant today that it was in ’95 when it was released. In the 15 years that have passed since the film’s release, the planet’s energy crisis has become increasingly worse. Wars are being waged to secure our supply of foreign oil, and the suggestion of alternative energy sources are fought tooth and nail by multi-national corporations. If NASA were to simultaneously discover, an inhabitable planet, that also has a massive surplus of oil beneath it’s surface, do you think our government’s first move would be to study, and research the planet, perhaps even look into colonization? Or would the next set of feet on the ground be Haliburton, with BP and Exxon in their back pockets? “Screamers” does a good job, portraying the evil side of greed, and our unquenchable thirst for more energy.

The film gets it’s title from a defense system that the miners/military put in place. Autonomous “creatures” with saw blades for swords. The problem is, they “screamers” as they have become called for their high pitched squeal used to alert other “screamers” in the area of intruders, they’ve just become too smart. The human element has been taken out of the equation, and the mechanical creatures have begun manufacturing themselves. Not only that, but they have started to evolve, minor tweaks and upgrades at first, but it soon becomes apparent that they’ve learned how to replicate the human form. The first encounter involves a lonely, hungry boy, begging to come be taken somewhere. As the viewer, you are immediately aware of the fact that it’s not possible for this boy to have survived, and there is clearly something odd at play. Eventually, we learn that the “screamers” have developed the ability to double any human it comes in contact with.

I love post apocalyptic films, I’m not sure if it’s because I fantasize about being on a planet where I am one of only a few other survivors, or if it just appeals to my sensibilities. My second favorite sub genre of film is the “body snatcher” style film. Add a little bit of political subtext, and you’ve just made my dream film. Granted, it’s not in the traditional sense of the “body snatcher”, but by the end, it’s close enough to call it such. There are several odd little details that sets “Screamers” away from the pack of other late ’90s apocalyptic sci-fi fare. The planet in which it takes place is still very much ravaged by lethal doses of radiation, to neutralize the adverse effects, like death, people smoke a red cigarette, referred to throughout as “reds”. Little quirks like this add up to make what feels like a wholly original experience, even in such an over utilized genre.

The way in which the “screamers” locate, and ultimately eliminate their targets is by detecting their heartbeat. A system is developed that is to be worn on your person, that somehow interferes with their detection, and relays your heartbeat as a flatline. We are led to believe that each unit has been specifically designed for that person’s bio-code, but it’s later revealed that the device interferes enough so that it can disguise anyone’s heartbeat, and in some cases, more than one person at once. This was my one problem with the film, as this is never really explained in any way. We’re told early on that this is the case, then we are shown otherwise, without so much as an “I’ll be damned” moment. This is a minor complaint though, and doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

Unlike “Blade Runner”, which was also based on a book written by Phillip K. Dick, “Screamers” never developed much of a following. One reason for this would clearly be because it’s a much lower budget affair. Despite being produced around 12 years after “Blade Runner” the special effects are very primitive in comparison. “Screamers” is an A+ film wrapped in a B-movie shell. For fans of the genre, though, it’s a must see. I’ve always considered this film a classic, regardless of what the popular opinion is. Last year a sequel was even released, which I haven’t been able to watch yet. Clearly though, someone out there has love for the film, if the story continues.

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