Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: That adorable walking weapon Chappie inspires five days of robots, androids, and sentient machines.
Christian Duguay isn’t a household name or even a cult figure, but in the 1990s, he carved himself a niche as a minor league director of offbeat B sci-fi and action flicks, of which Screamers is the most fun. It’s one of the more faithful attempts at translating Philip K. Dick’s fiction (in this case, the 1953 short story “Second Variety”) into the action-thriller format: A workmanlike piece of genre filmmaking, all low angles and low ceilings, which tempers its claustrophobia and paranoia with a brisk pace and a sense of forward momentum. A flop in its time, the movie has acquired a much-deserved cult reputation over the years, eventually spawning a crappy straight-to-video sequel.
Screamers is set on a mining outpost planet in the too-near-to-be-credible future, where two factions are fighting an increasingly pointless war of attrition while struggling to protect themselves from self-replicating killer robots, which were introduced by one side to wear down the other, but have since adapted to the environment. (Dick’s original story—adapted here by genre icon Dan O’Bannon—was set on a post-nuclear-war Earth, with the United Nations and the Soviet Union as the two sides.) Peter Weller, whose face was more or less made for squinting at ruin-strewn sci-fi landscapes, plays a commanding officer from one side who goes off to investigate a peace offer from the other, and in the process discovers that the robots have started impersonating humans—the set-up for a classic who-can-you trust scenario.
Like a lot of B filmmakers, Duguay—a former Steadicam operator who made his feature directing debut with the straight-to-video Scanners II: The New Order—is essentially indifferent to performance, so it helps that he has Weller for a lead; the actor injects a sober, dickish toughness into the movie, which does a better job at establishing the weary, war-ravaged setting than any of the futuristic jargon. But aside from some neat old-school effects (sweeping matte paintings, stop-motion monsters), the big draw here is the taut, tightened storytelling and Duguay’s effective, economical way with the camera. Even as the characters keep coming back to the mystery of what (or who) is genuine, the film keeps moving forward, through rubble-piled ruins and down tunnels, with the whirring, bladed robots—dubbed “screamers” for the sound they emit before attacking—right on its heels.
Availability: Screamers is is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library.