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Screamers (1995)

Written by: Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores
Directed by: Christian Duguay

A second Underrated Thing, here, following on from Blair Witch 2. Seeing as 1995 was 16 years ago, and this (“Third Revision”) version of the screenplay, credited to legendary sf screenwriter O’Bannon alone, from the days when the project was still called CLAW1

is dated “October 1981”, and, seeing further, that the Philip K. Dick short-story, Second Variety, upon which both of these are based, first appeared nearly sixty years ago in 1953, I don’t think we need worry too much about warning that COLOSSAL SPOILERS will ensue.

That said, I do think all these version of the story (particularly Dick’s original) are Very Good Things, and the film version we finally got with Screamers remains, despite the fact that its long, many-handed gestation period partially (though by no means completely) weakened the ending, my favourite of the billions2 of Dick screen adaptations. Well worth going and reading/watching any or all of these first, in other words.

Anyhoo. The plot involves a war between The UN and the Soviet Union (“Second Variety”) The UN and the New Ecomomic Group (CLAW), or The Alliance and the New Economic Block (Screamers), and the questions of who is human or who only appears as human3, encountered by Joe Hendriksson (the legendary Peter Weller — the characeter is named “Hendricks” in Second Variety and CLAW), as he embarks on a doomed peace mission.

The self-replicating, evolving CLAW/Screamer robots, you see, have learned how to imitate humans, and evade the jamming devices the UN/Alliance soldiers who initially deployed them use to protect themselves. Several varieties of these are discovered, from the basic churning, flying buzzsaws, to cyborgs disguised as a lost child carrying a teddy bear (the genuinely creepy Davids), to wounded soldiers crying for help; and their type, or model number, is discovered from chips retrieved from destroyed models…But what is the second variety?

In Dick’s original story, the first development from the psychotic flymo parts (the wounded soldier) is the First Variety, the Davids are the Third, and the supposed Second Variety (the soldier Klaus) turns out to be the Fourth; the Second turning out to be the story’s female charactor, Tasso. At the tale’s end, the doomed Hendricks, having sent Tasso (whom he believed to be human) away on a single-seat evacuation rocket, reflects that at least Tasso’s previous actions had showed that the CLAWS were developing the technology to destroy each other, and not just humans.

Although O’Bannon’s CLAW script heeds to this numbering, the ending involves Hendricks escaping away from various Tasso robots; but then the script ends with a final scene of an ageless CLAW version of himself piloting ships full of Tassos to the stars…

This is where Screamers nearly blows it. It fudges the numbers issue a bit, and, though Tasso (by now, rather wetly, renamed “Jessica”), still turns out to be a CLAW, the first (?) version of her that Hendricksson meets, and who has fallen in love with him, turns out to have a “heart” (*vomits*), and fights off a version of herself to enable Hendricksson to escape on the evac-rocket4. Right at the death though, the film is saved5 by a teddy bear, of the sort carried by the Davids, and which is lying in the evacuation rocket, starting, in a brilliantly Dickian fashion, to twitch…

So, Screamers is a film that covers Dick’s grand theme, in a relatively low-budget, not-scarred by fatuous CGI way that feels more like Dick’s writing than things like Total Recall (still great fun, given O’Bannon’s input and P. Verhoeven’s usual barking turned-up-to-11 performance as director) or Blade Runner (a couple of genuinely excellent moments, but still, I can’t help but find, personally, not something I ever want to watch again) managed.



1 Cybernetic Lurking Antipersonnel Weapon.

2 Slight exaggeration.

3 “My grand theme” — Philip K. Dick

4 This sort of robots with a heart of gold bollockosity still occurs, sometimes, even here in the 21st Century. See, e.g. Victory of the Daleks, in, to be fair, the excellent Matt Smith’s mostly splendidly enjoyable first series of Doctor Who.

Rather like the superb Bernard Cribbens turned up at the end to save the last couple of finales of the previous Tennant of the Tardis’s tenure on Doctor Who…