The year is 2078, and on the planet Sirius 6B, a long, harsh, hate-filled war is being waged between the Alliance and the NEB's. However the NEB's are willing to begin peace talks, so Alliance leader Col. Joseph Hendricksson, accompanied by a man named Ace, and later a young boy, journey across the nuclear war-ravaged plains to meet with their foes. Upon their arrival, however, they discover that most of the NEB's have been annihilated by the "screamers," knife-brandishing robots that slice and slash humans simply for fun. Hendrickson and Ace soon realize that their lives are in grave danger, for it's impossible to know who to trust... for the blood-seeking screamers can take on any form, from an inanimate object -- to a young boy.
Screamers oozes atmosphere. It's a dark film that borrows heavily from the likes of the Alien films, Dune, Blade Runner, and John Carpenter's updated The Thing. From start to finish, Screamers is shot in a manner intended to convey paranoia and claustrophobia. Set design is always impressive, if bleak, and consists primarily of ruined buildings and underground bunkers. Matte paintings of wrecked bridges and smashed cities form an ominous backdrop to much of the movie's action.
The film opens with several paragraphs of background text. The year is 2078 and the place is Sirius 6B. Once a paradise, it has been reduced to a radioactive wasteland as the result of mining toxic Berynium (the "solution" to Earth's energy crisis) and a war that has lasted more than a decade. Peace may be close at hand, however, and it's up to Commander Hendricksson (Robocop himself, Peter Weller) to decide the legitimacy of his enemies' appeal for an armistice.
Along with fresh-out-of-training rookie Ace (Andy Lauer), Hendricksson heads into the wasteland, traveling to the opposition's control bunker. Along the way, he meets several other Sirius 6B survivors, all eking out a nomadic existence: bootlegger Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), a woman who wants nothing more than to go to Earth; Ross (Charles Powell), the sole survivor of a massacre; and Becker (Roy Dupuis), a hardened cynic who prefers killing to asking questions.
As these five trek across the surface of Sirius 6B, they encounter a new, deadly adversary: the screamers (so nicknamed because of the squeal they make when attacking). Originally created as "autonomous mobile swords" by Hendricksson's side, the electronic, buzz-saw-like creatures have evolved, shaking off the yoke of slavery. With the ability to form a human shape and mimic human behavior, little appears beyond their capabilities, including infiltrating Hendricksson's small group.
Screamers' story, like its look, owes much to other films. As in Alien and Aliens, there's a lot of hunting through dimly-lit, oppressive tunnels and passageways. One type of screamer bears a resemblance to a cross between an H.R. Giger creation and a cybermat from Dr. Who. Human identity, one of the central themes of The Thing, plays a key role in Screamers as well. Since the screamers can replicate human beings, there's no telling who can be trusted.
The film isn't without flaws. Screamers is so excessively concerned with tone and atmosphere that it sometimes forgets about character development. The movie is half over before we start to care about anyone, including Weller's Hendricksson. Also, the philosophical issues inherent in the evolution of a new lifeform are entirely ignored in favor of action and adventure. Despite this, the pace is still uneven, with slow stretches of wandering across snowscapes and through tunnels interspersed with tense battle sequences.
Screamers, like Twelve Monkeys and The City of Lost Children, emphasizes that science fiction doesn't have to be upbeat to succeed. This "sci-fi noir" style has led to a crop of films that hopefully heralds a new trend in the industry. If nothing else, Screamers underlines an important truth: you don't need a big budget or big-name stars to make this sort of motion picture succeed.