In the distance…my God…could it be? Yes! It's a matte painting!

 

Gagged

You'll be screaming
( for the exits) with Screamers.

by Coury Turczyn

 

There is a key moment of truth in film making, long before cameras roll or actors jockey for credit position on the poster. It happens when an underpaid 22-year-old assistant script-reader in a windowless office in Century City or Burbank or West L.A. blazes through the first 12 pages of a screenplay, considers its main idea, and thinks: "Yeah, that works."

Everything that happens afterward is a result of that single, momentous leap of acceptance. The producer reads the script-reader's coverage, agrees that the story's premise is marketable, and decides to raise tremendous sums of money to turn it into a feature film. Then hundreds of people–actors, technicians, teamsters–gather in far-off lands, often under extreme conditions, and spend months of their lives struggling to bring the idea to life. Finally, a studio looks at the finished product, convinces itself that this is an idea people will pay to see, and distributes and markets the movie throughout the world.

It's a breathtaking act of faith, really–so many millions of dollars being gambled on the movie makers' belief in an idea dreamt up years earlier by some schlep who probably couldn't get to sleep one night. Everything–careers, studios, lives–rides on the idea.

In Dead Man Walking, for instance, the central idea is the divisive issue of capital punishment, and what the emotional and moral consequences are when the government decides to punish the guilty with death. In Screamers, it's about little whiny metal rat things that fly out of the ground and slice your head off.

Screamers is one of those movies that strikes you dumb with wonder: Who in the world thought that this insanely silly idea was worth making? Which executive at what studio said to himself, "Hmmm, little whiny metal rat things that fly out of the ground and slice people's heads off … ingenious! We must make this film!"

Single-handedly ripping off Alien(s), Total Recall, Blade Runner, Terminator and Tremors, Screamers is a hodgepodge of modern science fiction clichés piled so high it's difficult to see any bones of originality. It's the kind of fodder you expect to see released straight to video, with its cheesy special effects, B-list actors mouthing inane dialogue, and plot twists that seem more accidental than logical. Although it may very well be "the sci-fi action thriller of the year!" as proclaimed in its ads by the mysterious "Interview Factory Entertainment Network," Screamers is also the only one this year so far–which may be why it got a wide release. It was certainly not because it's fun or thrilling or imaginative.

Supposedly based on a short story by cult science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (who wrote the novel that inspired Blade Runner), and co-scripted by Dan O'Bannon (Alien, Total Recall), Screamers is one big tired rehash–with none of the genre twists that elevate the best B-movies. You've got your evil galactic corporation battling honorable miners in a far-off outpost (Total Recall), your killer robots that look human (Terminator), your hot babes who can't admit they're robots (Blade Runner–sorry for the plot revelation; all bets are off), dark corridors in industrial areas full of deadly enemies (Alien), and those aforementioned whiny rat things that travel under the sand just like those worms did in Tremors.

Peter Weller stars as the miners' military leader, stuck defending a destroyed city against the New Economic Bloc's forces. Full of tired resignation–mostly to his inability to get better roles–Weller gives it the old college try, gritting his teeth around dialogue like "Every revolution eats its own children," or "Apparently, you've mistaken me for someone who gives two shits." His base is protected by "screamers," mini-robots beneath the ground that zero in on heart beats and slash the owners to ribbons. However, while venturing through the wasteland to the N.E.B.'s base to make peace, he discovers that the screamers have mutated, propagating their own more advanced race of human-killers. Soon, Weller must join forces with the N.E.B. survivors to battle the nefarious, human-like robots.

What the studio (Triumph) was probably expecting here was lots of moody, tense action scenes set against a backdrop of political intrigue. What director Christian Duguay (Scanners II: The New Order) delivers is hackwork of the most desperate order. Every carefully composed shot and portentous pan reveals his desire for this to be considered serious stuff; but then it's all shot to hell by completely ludicrous imagery.

For example, one of the new robot types is a strain of killers that looks like the cast of Oliver!–hundreds of identical five-year-old boys dressed in rags, clutching frayed teddy bears. As they stumble zombie-like toward our heroes, menacingly saying "My name is David," the only proper response is to erupt in laughter–especially when seeing them immolated in a nuclear blast. (So much for Newsies II …) Likewise, when Weller slashes open the hand of his love interest to see if she's a robot, then immediately mashes his lips to hers in a passionate kiss, you've got to wonder about his make-out technique. Do flesh wounds really turn chicks on? Duguay shows that regular lapse of judgment prevalent among hacks–the inability to figure out what's really, really stupid … and avoid it.

In the end, all that can be said is that it's a shame some producer took that leap of faith for Screamers–because audiences certainly won't.

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