Friday, October 21, 2011

Film Friday: Screamers (1995)

I like Screamers. It’s a decent science fiction film about machines turning on man. The story is unique and inspired and the plot handles the story well. There really isn’t anything about this film I would change. Yet, I can’t call it a great film. In fact, if I were to rate it, I’d give it a solid B. I find that fascinating.

** spoiler alert**

Based on Philip K. Dick's short story “Second Variety,” Screamers involves a group of soldiers stuck in a genocidal war on a formerly rich mining colony. The year is 2078. A dispute over the profits from mining a rare mineral on Sirius 6B has caused Earth to split into two warring economic groups: the Alliance and the New Economic Block. War begins on Sirius. But the Alliance is outnumbered, so they invent a new weapon: the mobile autonomous sword (a screamer). These are power-saw- like robots that travel beneath the ground and kill anything living -- Alliance soldiers are protected by wrist bands which mask their heartbeats. The war devastated the planet and few soldiers remain on either side.

As the story opens, a N.E.B. soldier is killed outside the Alliance bunker. He’s carrying a proposal directed to Alliance commander Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) to negotiate a peace treaty. The mineral has been discovered on another planet and, thus, their war has become irrelevant. So Weller and a newly-arrived soldier (Private Jefferson) set out to negotiate with the N.E.B. commander, Marshall Richard Cooper. Only, they don’t find Cooper. When they get to the Alliance bunker, they find only three survivors. It turns out the screamers have been busy evolving and now there are several varieties. . . and some of them look human.

Here’s what fascinates me. I typically judge the quality of a film by asking how I would improve the film. The less I would do differently, the better the film. On the surface, Screamers is a film with little to change. The actors are good, the sets and effects are good, the plot works well and moves quickly. The characters are interesting and the twists are solid and unexpected. So I should rate this film very highly. But I can’t.

At first, this had me wondering if my test doesn’t really work. Could it be that some stories simply have a ceiling of how good they can be no matter how much you tinker with them? I’ve always worked on the assumption that you can take any story and keep adjusting it until you reach a point that it becomes a great story. But maybe that’s not true? Maybe a story like Screamers simply can’t ever become more than an average story no matter what you do differently or what you add to it?

What about another director? Could Steven Spielberg make this a better film? Based on his adventures in the world of Dick with Minority Report, I doubt it. Minority Report left me deeply underwhelmed. Christopher Nolan handled complex questions of who you can trust well in Inception and Memento, but I also doubt he could help Screamers. And the reason I doubt Nolan can help is because I know what’s wrong with Screamers and it’s the same thing that’s wrong with Inception and with Minority Report: they lack humanity.

The film we should be looking at is Blade Runner. What makes Blade Runner so special isn’t the film noir feel brought to science fiction or even the new take on dystopia, it’s the humanity of Blade Runner. Blade Runner hooks us by asking us to find out what lays behind Harrison Ford’s tough guy veneer, to find out how Rachel deals with discovering she’s not human, and to learn what causes Roy’s epiphany at the end of the film. Blade Runner asks us what makes us human and then lets us peer deeply into the souls of three people to find out.

This is where Screamers and Minority Report went wrong. Minority Report is a shallow Tom Cruise film at heart. Despite the attempt to cram Spielberg-style emotional ploys into the film, there is no moment where we can really look into Tom’s soul. Watch the film a thousand times and you still won’t know anything more about him than you did staring at the poster before the movie began. But go back and watch Roy’s split-second change of heart or the shock on Rachel’s face as Ford lays bare the lie of her childhood or the anguish in Ford as he realizes he’s been taking genuine lives, and you’ll peer right into their souls.

Screamers fails this test. I like Peter Weller and his character. Jefferson is a fun guy to watch. The N.E.B.s are interesting too. Becker is a twisted psycho on the edge and Ross is a man whose nerves are so shot he’s visibly falling apart. But there isn’t a single moment in this film where you ever look into their souls or where you are shown the difference between a human and a machine pretending to be human.

To fix Screamers, it must be refocused on what makes Hendricksson human in the first place. Don’t just give us two minutes of dialog telling us about some old girlfriend or telling us what he drinks or what kind of music he likes. Show us what makes him tick. Show us how he resolved some emotional struggle so we understand him. Show us he has a soul, so we can peer into it at the key moment of crisis.

In fact, I am thinking this may be the key to all science fiction. Too often science fiction feels flat. And when I think of the films that did work, I realize that what worked was not the plot, it was the moments the characters became real. It was watching Sean Connery admit on a racquetball court that he needed to prove his own worth to himself in Outland. It was the brief moments mentioned above in Blade Runner. It was learning who Jim Kirk really was week after week in Star Trek and seeing each week’s main character deal with their own humanity in very inhuman circumstances on The Twilight Zone. It was watching the crew come together after bickering and picking on each other in Alien or the moments of bravery rather than bravado in Aliens. It was the flirting moments in Empire Strikes Back. Etc. These are the moments we remember.

So the lesson here is if you want to write enduring, quality science fiction, don’t write a story about a thing or place or event, write a story about people who happen to encounter a thing or place or endure an event.

28 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I couldn't help but think of Star Trek. Roddenbury called it "Wagon Train to the Stars." Yes, the format was spacemen and alien cultures, but what made it work was humanity. The problems and choices are the problems and choices we face today. The main characters bonded and played off each other. Eeven the aliens were essentially human in the way they acted (think Horta.)

I may not rush out and see Screamers, but love the analysis.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Wow, great analysis. I liked Screamers and I always enjoy Peter Weller performances (including Buckaroo Banzai). But it's been on TV many times, and I've just never bothered watching it again. I think your review tells me why. It's not a bad movie, it's just not a really good movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! I'm glad you liked it! :)

Interesting choice with the Horta, because it was rather human despite being a rock-blog creature.

I think that is the lesson of Star Trek, but the way, that all the science fiction stuff -- the ships, the aliens, the funky plot ideas -- need to be just the setting to the story and the story needs to be about the characters themselves. I think sadly too many science fiction films fail that and end up highlighting the wrong things.

I think that's the problem with Screamers too. It does try to give you more character than normal, but it never gets below the surface really because it's mainly concerned with the plot.

CrispyRice said...

Haven't seen this, but I do like Peter Weller!

Ever see a series he did called Odyssey 5? It was cut short, but it was very interesting!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Thanks! I always like Peter Weller too... including Buckaroo Banzai, and I do mostly enjoy Screamers, it just feels really flat to me -- and I think this is why. Basically, as you say, it's not bad but it's also not good -- it just "is."

I'd love to see this re-made with a strong focus on the characters.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I liked a lot of what I saw in Odyssey 5, but the show never really got a chance to take off -- good premise though. I take it you're a fan?

T-Rav said...

Hmmm. And here I thought Screamers was just another crappy SciFi production, since it's on there all the time.

I think the humanity is a good point to make about science fiction. If I remember right, you made the point in another review that the real point of the genre isn't the futuristic technology or space aliens or anything, it's the human drama playing out in those settings. Some of the newer scifi movies tend to fall down on that score.

CrispyRice said...

I am, Andrew -- a disappointed fan! O5 really left us hanging. *sigh*

I'll check this movie out. Thanks!

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, No, this isn't just a SciFi film -- it has a $20 million budget. There have been two sequels made by the SciFi channel though, and those totally stink.

I have made the humanity point several times and I think this film really clarifies why it's important. This is a good film. It is enjoyable enough. But it could be so much better if they gave you something to care about. As it stands, the characters are just too dull. In fact, Weller is downright depressing throughout. So you kind of wonder after a while why he even cares if he lives or dies.

Still, I recommend checking it out.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Crispy. Yeah, O5 was killed almost just as it was starting, so you never really got very far with it. I would have liked to see where they could have taken the concept.

Sadly, that happens a lot with science fiction -- it's DOA if it doesn't become a huge rating hit right out of the gates.

Ed said...

Andrew, Excellent analysis. I think you're right, I think too many people think it is the effects that matter in these films, but what really matters is the characters.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed, I think that's true. I can't think of many successful science fiction films that don't have solid characters. The one exception that comes to mind is 2001, but that's also a strange movie because the point was to make the humans less human than the robot to make a point.

ScyFyterry said...

Great analysis! I love science fiction, all of it. And I like Screamers. I even have it on DVD. But you're absolutely right this film could be better if we cared more about the charaters. I too like Jefferson and he was the one I felt most for, but I found the rest hard to care all that much about other than as part of the story itself. If that makes sense? :D

AndrewPrice said...

ScyFyTerry, Thanks! As I note, I don't think this is a bad film at all. It's a decent science fiction film with a great premise, some good effects, and a good story. It is "solid." But it also feels flat. And that I attribute to not ever getting into the characters. I like them well enough, but not enough that I really feel it when they are in danger. It's more like watching a generic action film in that way. And I think the problem here, as it seems to be too often with science fiction is that the characters just don't offer us much. They do the usual run-down of traits and detailing of their pasts, but they don't give us much to let us know who they are underneath.

Doc Whoa said...

Excellent post Andrew! I wonder if Steven Spielberg could fix "Screamers" if he applied the same idea he used for "Poltergeist"? The way he took half the film letting us get to know the family before anything truly bad happened.

ScottDS said...

I've heard of this film but I've never seen it. Sadly, I think it played in theaters for a week or two before going to the VHS (and then DVD) clearance bin. Oddly, I only knew about it because, at the time, I was subscribing to a visual effects magazine titled Cinefex and there was a trade ad for whatever FX companies worked on the film. I don't recall seeing a trailer or a TV spot.

Ah, Peter Weller... talk about the most interesting man in the world! I loved him in Buckaroo Banzai and RoboCop and he even showed up on an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (where he was reunited with his Odyssey 5 showrunner Manny Coto).

Re: humanity, I've given this some thought. I wonder if this is part of the filmmakers' approach? Some filmmakers no doubt have an interesting character in mind (Indiana Jones) while others start with an interesting idea (a world where you're arrested before you commit the crime). And with sci-fi, often filmmakers start with a big "What if...?"

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Thanks! Excellent mention of Poltergeist. That is a film that does it right. They spent time really letting you get to know the parent and they did it in a way that isn't fake. In other words, you learned about these people from watching how they related to each other and their kids -- not by having one character show up and say: "Gee Bill, do you still have the following traits?"

I'm actually thinking about writing about the truly critical scene in that film because I think it's so amazingly well written.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Weller is fascinating. If I remember correctly, he's become a college professor after being an actor and he teaches something like ancient history?

If you get a chance and you like science fiction, I recommend checking this out. It's a solid film. It's just not a great film -- and I haven't spoiled anything in the article above.

On the question of whether or not some filmmakers come in with different perspectives, that's a good question. I think some people are just good at certain things. For example, some people are great at writing dialog. Others couldn't write dialog to save their lives, but they are good with plot. Ditto on characters v. plot.

But even beyond that, I wonder if there isn't a sense in science fiction that you need to focus on the "world" first, i.e. creating a universe into which to put the characters. And then the characters are squeezed into that rather than the writer focusing on the characters independently.

I don't know. But Dan O'Bannon, who wrote this, is capable of writing some excellent stuff like Alien.

ScottDS said...

You should know by now I like science fiction! :-)

The Alien script was heavily rewritten by the producers and O'Bannon was still pissed off about it when he was interviewed in 2003 for the big Alien boxset. To his credit, he was the one who came up with the central idea (chestburster) but the producers brought a lot to the table, too (like making Ash a droid).

You make a good point about focusing on the world. For example, if I'm telling a story about a family and their issues, I need a good reason to put it in a science fiction setting... or do I? Can I tell the same story in another genre? Here's a question but I think we all know the answer: could Blade Runner have been told as a straight film noir?

Oh, and re: Weller, per Wikipedia (yes, I know): In 2004, Weller completed a Master's degree in Roman and Renaissance Art at Syracuse University and occasionally teaches courses in ancient history at the university. In 2007, Weller was finishing a Ph.D. at UCLA, in Italian Renaissance art history. He expects to complete his dissertation in 2012.

P.S. I've wanted to say this for a long time... I think you've mentioned Peter Hyams films more than any other movie blogger! I don't think Hyams references Outland as much as you do! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott,

I do know you like science fiction, which is why I recommend this film. It's better than 98% of what's out there, even if it isn't quite in the top 1%.

I can't help it, Hyams produced some films that I totally love (or really like) or which just fascinate me: Outland, Capricorn One, the Presidio, The Star Chamber, Sudden Death, 2010, Time Cop, and A Sound of Thunder. I go where my tastes take me! :)

I knew it was something like that on Weller. Cool!

O'Bannon has an interesting mix of really good and really bad. I would bet (just guessing) that he's an ideas man and then when he gets solid backup to fill in the gaps, his films do really well. But when they don't get solid backup, things feel a little stale.

On the idea of needing an excuse. I've run into this issue lately. I have a great idea for a comedy set in a science fiction world. BUT it would also work really well as a straight story, so which way do I go? The danger of not deciding in advance is that you end up with neither. And if you can make a great story in and of itself, why risk making it a comedy?

Which leades me to this point. When it comes to science fiction, I think the thinking is that if you come up with a great drama, then shifting it into a science fiction world will only limit its appeal. So people don't do that. That leave science fiction for people who love the toys and ships and planets, but aren't really good at story telling.

It's a bit of a catch 22. To get better science fiction needs people who are better writers of things like dramas, but they see no reason to do science fiction because it won't help them sell their ideas.

mycrofth4 said...

It's not just in science fiction.
My wife and I loved the TV series Alias even though the story lines were often quite ridiculous and Sydney's abilities varied considerably from episode to episode. I realized we loved the show strictly because of the characters: Sydney, her dad, Marcus, Marshall, Sloan, Vaughn, Sark, etc.
Plot entertains us, but it's the characters that bring us back.

AndrewPrice said...

mycroft, That's very true. I think it's always the characters that pull us in. In fact, when I think of films in any genre, it's rare that I think of chase scenes or plot turns -- though sometimes I do, but it is rare. Instead, I almost always think of the characters that inhabit the films and how much I enjoyed (or didn't enjoy) spending time with them.

And in a television series it becomes even more true. Take The Sopranos for example. I barely remember any particular episode, but I remember all the characters and how much I kept looking forward to whatever they would do next.

Stargate was the same way. I honestly didn't care about the plots because they were largely recycled over and over, but I really looked forward to spending time with the characters -- it was like watching old friends for an hour at a time.

Interestingly though, I think this flies in the face of much of what modern screenwriting is about. In fact, I've been reading several screenwriting sites and they focus almost obsessively on plot, plot, plot. They seem to think characters are an afterthought and are little more than plot elements to use to make a scene work. I think that's backward thinking.

T-Rav said...

Peter Weller's a history teacher in real life? That is--awesome! And makes me feel a lot better about my field, to be perfectly honest.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, There you have it! Commentarama makes life better in every way! :)

Actually, I found that impressive too when I first heard about it and it just made me like him that much more. So many stars are idiots with zero skills outside of acting, so it's always cool to hear of one who has a brain and can use it.

Ed said...

Andrew, I think you're right that this is the key to all stories. It's hard to care for a plot twist or a car chase, but it's easy to care for characters, and I think you made the very point that stories work best when we have emotional attachments to them.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I did indeed say that and I think it's true. I think the key to any story is to get the audience emotionally invested in the film. The only way to achieve that is to draw them in to the characters because you can't form an emotional attachment to a plot. For one thing, it's hard to be emotionally attached to a moment in time -- not impossible, just hard. But even then, how do you get someone attached to 40-50 moments in the same film? It's not possible. The only way to get people emotionally invested is through the characters.

tryanmax said...

Oh great, another title to add to my interminable list of movies yet to see.

AndrewPrice said...

I know what you mean. My list is huge and I just don't have the time to get to any of it right now.

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