The great thing about visiting video stores back in the day was the effort that went into creating eye-catching cover art. Even to this day, I can still tell you what movies are by just a tiny glimpse at the spine of a VHS box or the specific font that was used. The film studios did everything they could to get their product to stand out on the shelf and sometimes that meant the cover art wasn’t great, but just different.
Screamers is not one of those films that had a great cover art, but the use of orange and green made it stick in my brain. When I ran across the image Amazon Prime was using for the film, I didn’t even connect that it was the same Screamers. The image they used is way more subtle, less memorable, but definitely superior.
I never watched Screamers back in the 90’s, mostly because of the terrible box art. It looked like another low-effort, direct to VHS sci-fi film and that just wasn’t on my radar at the time. But a few days ago, I decided to throw Screamers on after I saw that it starred both Peter Weller (Robocop, Longmire) and Jennifer Rubin (Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Crush). I’m happy that I did because it’s a fun, 90’s sci-fi, horror flick.
Screamers was not a direct to VHS release and was in fact released in theaters. It only brought in five million dollars of its fourteen-million-dollar budget. Based on the Phillip K. Dick short story, Second Variety, Screamers was written by Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter who adapted another Phillip K. Dick short story a few years earlier originally titled We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which became 1990’s Total Recall.
O’Bannon had written the script in 1983, when it was optioned by Tom Nuad, who was the special effects designer on the terrific Sean Connery film Outland. However, the film got stuck in developmental hell where it lingered until the 90’s, when the script got a re-write by Miguel Tejada-Flores. O’Bannon didn’t even know the movie was made until his agent called him after the release to let him know he got a screenwriting credit. The plot and characters from the original script had remained, but the dialogue had been re-written.
Directed by Christian Duguay (Scanners II, The Art of War), Screamers was not a huge hit and hasn’t become much of a cult film since its release in 1995. It did however get a direct to DVD sequel in 2009, starring Gina Holden (Final Destination 3, Saw 3D) and Stephen Amell (Arrow, Heels) and was written by Miguel Tejada-Flores.
I’m currently in the process of trying to track down a copy of the sequel to watch, because the reviews I’ve seen said it’s decent, and relies mostly on practical effects. That’s always a win for me!
So, what is Screamers about? In 2078, a mining planet has become a toxic wasteland and a civil war has broken out between the mining company and a group of former mining and science personnel. The war began after the miners released their ore extractions released toxic gas and went on strike. The mining company in return, hired mercenaries to break up the strike.
Five years into the war, the Alliance (the miners and scientists) created AMS (Autonomous Mobile Swords) which were AI self-replicating machines that would track down the mercenaries and kill them on their own. They were nicknamed Screamers, because of the high pitch noise they made as they attacked.
After a long war, and a long stalemate, a truce is offered by the NEB (New Economic Block), the mining company, but the courier was killed by a Screamer. The Alliance commanding officer, Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller), frustrated with a lack of progress from Earth, decided to accept the truce to end the bloodshed. That means traveling across a treacherous wasteland to meet with the NEB leader.
I won’t spoil anymore of the plot because things get intense from there. It was nice to see Roy Dupuis (La Femme Nikita) in a role and the practical effects are quite good. There’s even some impressive stop motion work in the film.
What really kept me intrigued by Screamers was the atmosphere. There is something about the big abandon spaces that sci-fi films of the 90’s utilized pre-CGI. It felt lived in, and broken, and you feel the frustration from all of the characters stuck living in this terrible situation.
With a slightly better script and arguably a bigger star, someone like Schwarzenegger, I could see Screamers having been a big hit. It’s not that far off from being a very good 90’s sci-fi film. With that being said, I still enjoyed it and while it’s far from perfect and could use a little tightening up, the film has stuck with me for a few days now.
It’s made me crave more 90’s sci-fi films. Not the big budget Independence Days or Men in Black, but those slightly smaller films like Johnny Mnemonic. Films with some practical effects, a little camp, and a very open mind.