Filmed in 1995 and released in 1996, Christian Duguay’s Screamers recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. With its exceptional writing pedigree, a haunting soundtrack, and a cast headed by a genre icon, Screamers has all the ingredients of a top tier sci-fi recipe. Unfortunately, this dark, futuristic sci-fi/horror effort didn’t fare well at the box office or with critics at the time. Some films just seem to get better with age, though, and Screamers is one of those films. I saw it in theaters back in 1996. It always stuck with me, so I was more than happy to revisit it for its two and a half decade milestone.
Travel with me to planet Sirius 6B in the year 2078 and I’ll tell you all about it!
Screamers (1995) Synopsis
Commander Joe Hendricksson and new recruit Ace Jefferson set out across the surface of Sirius 6B, where they hope to settle a violent labor dispute at a remote mining outpost. After going too far to turn back, they find the desert riddled with deadly Autonomous Mobile Swords, or “Screamers.” Created to protect the mines, these burrowing weapons have learned to replicate themselves. To make matters worse, recent generations of Screamers can assume humanoid form.
Screamers is based on the Philip K. Dick short story “Second Variety.” Dick’s work has, of course, been adapted into numerous iconic sci-fi films, including Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Minority Report. Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Dark Star) wrote the screenplay with Miguel Tejada-Flores (Fright Night Part 2). Christian Duguay (Scanners II and III) directed the film.
Peter Weller (RoboCop) leads the cast, alongside character actors Roy Dupuis and Andrew Lauer (The Beast of Bray Road). Horror fans will be delighted to see Jennifer Rubin, who played Taryn in A Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors, in a memorable, ass kicking role here.
Here’s a look at the official poster art!
Release and Reception
Screamers opened in 1560 theaters the weekend of January 26, 1996. Despite the wide release, the movie managed just $2,904,140 on opening weekend. That was good for 9th place behind the newly released Bed of Roses and a slew of holdovers like Mr. Holland’s Opus, 12 Monkeys, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Grumpier Old Men. When its theatrical run ended, Screamers managed just $5.7 million at the box office against a $20 million budget.
Reviews were lukewarm. Roger Ebert gave the film 2 1/2 Stars out of 4. He noted “some of the elements in Screamers seem recycled out of Alien,” crediting much of that to Dan O’Bannon writing both scripts. He called the film “depressing,” but praised the dialogue. This review resulted in a “Thumbs Down” from Ebert and his At The Movies co-host Gene Siskel. Both critics ultimately found the film too derivative to recommend. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Screamers carries a fresh rating of just 28% (Rotten) and an audience score of 45%.
From an awards standpoint, Screamers was nominated for 3 Genie Awards in 1996: Best Supporting Actor (Ron White), Best Musical Score (Normand Corbeil), and Best Art Direction/Production Design (Perri Gorrara).
Humanity’s Dark Future
The opening text crawl tells you what you need to know: this is the future, and humanity is still driven by greed. The year is 2078, and the planet Sirius 6B: a mining colony in the middle of nowhere. For the past 50 years, an evil corporation known as the N.E.B. has controlled mining operations throughout the known systems. In 2058, the N.E.B. discovers Berynium. It is the solution to the world’s energy problems. The problem? It’s toxic, and terrible for the environment. The mine workers, aka “The Alliance,” and scientists rebel, and the N.E.B. declares war.
Earth slips into a new cold war. Nuclear winter and Berynium radiation devastate Sirius 6B. The film begins in the 10th year of that war. Commander Joe Hendricksson (Weller) and his Alliance are holed up in a bunker. A lone soldier appears, carrying a message from the N.E.B. He’s cut down (literally) before he can deliver it. It’s here we are introduced to the Alliance’s secret weapon: Screamers. These mobile SWORDs hunt down and kill everything with a heartbeat. Even friendlies! They kill indiscriminately, and they are the only reason the Alliance has lasted this long in the fight against the N.E.B.
The message is a request to meet to discuss a truce. Hendricksson is suspicious, but can’t take a chance on passing up any opportunity to end the fighting. He sets out on a mission to find the N.E.B. bunker and its commander. Along the way he discovers that the Screamers are evolving and developing an intelligence of their own. Can the two sides meet and end the war? Or is it already too late?
I Scream, You Scream
I like my sci-fi mixed with horror, and Screamers delivers in that regard. You’ve got a sci-fi setting with slasher elements mixed together with a splash of whodunnit. It all blends together quite effectively. Peter Weller delivers a fine performance in the lead role, adding instant sci-fi street cred to the cast. He bears the full weight of the film’s future war on his shoulders and you can see it in everything his character says and does. Jennifer Rubin also shines here. The film really picks up after her arrival.
The production design is top notch. There are some great architectural looks for the military bases and industrial complexes. The matte paintings and physical components all blend pretty seamlessly into a believable, Earth-like alien planet. It’s gritty and dark: more Starship Troopers than Star Trek. The critical comparisons to Alien are certainly warranted, but as Alien is one of the greatest movies ever made, it’s kind of hard to complain.
The Screamers themselves, or SWORDs if you prefer, are really cool. The audio design and musical score work together to create a nice, creepy atmosphere. The story keeps you engaged with its “Who’s Who?” elements and it all builds to a satisfying twist at the end. This isn’t a feelgood movie, by any stretch. I hope you like your endings dark. I know I do!
My only real complaint: the stop motion visual FX compositing is pretty bad. There are a handful of really poorly executed FX shots that really take you out of the film. It is especially jarring since the practical FX and matte work are so exceptional. That makes these herky-jerky animations stand out even more. A shame, but overall it’s not a deal breaker.
Legacy and Home Video
Screamers spawned a direct to video sequel in 2009: Screamers: The Hunting. It’s safe to say if you enjoy the original, you’ll dig the sequel. I found it to be a pleasant surprise…and it’s got Lance Henriksen in it, so you know it’s not a total loss! At the time of this writing, neither film is streaming on Netflix or Hulu, but you can rent both films on Amazon and Vudu.
Shout Factory released Screamers on Blu-ray in January, 2019. Special features include interviews with Director Christian Duguay, Producer Tom Berry, Co-writer Miguel Tejada-Flores, and actress Jennifer Rubin. You can order a copy from Amazon here.
It’s a shame they couldn’t get a feature commentary out of Duguay, and Peter Weller is notoriously absent. I guess that’s not really shocking. According to IMDB, in 1995, Entertainment Weekly asked Weller about his Screamers characters. His response: “He is paid and turns up and says the lines. That’s all.” There will be no tearful Screamers reunions in Weller’s future, I imagine.
Screamers – Final Thoughts
Dan O’Bannon. Philip K. Dick. Peter Weller. That iconic hat trick is really all you need to know about Screamers. Now to be fair, this isn’t Alien or Total Recall…or even RoboCop. It is, however, a solid piece of genre fun that sci-fi and horror fans alike will appreciate. It’s a shame it has struggled to find an audience over the years. It really is an underappreciated gem. If you’ve slept on Screamers, sleep no more! It’s time to give this one a shot.
What do you think? Any Screamers fans out in PopHorror land? Tell us in the comments!