'Screamers' is nothing to shout about Movie review: Peter Weller does a nice job in this preposterous sci-fi adventure.

January 26, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Halfway through "Screamers" I kept thinking it would do much better under a title like "The Revenge of Punxsutawney Phil." It appears to be about killer groundhogs eating everything human they can get their chubby little cheeks wrapped around.

No such luck. (And I really would like to see a movie called "The Revenge of Punxsutawney Phil"!) Instead, the beasties under the ground, who for some odd reason trail a wake of dirt wherever they burrow like subterranean PT boats, turn out not to be animals but machines, something like runaway, psychotic Weed Eaters.

The back story to explain this development demands one of the longest pre-movie title explanations in history. Acres of exposition crawl across the screen for what feels like hours, almost like a course in poli-sci, having to do with the establishment, in the 2100s, of two competing world systems, the NEBs and the Alliance, who become involved in war on the Planet Sirius 6, site of an especially rich mineral deposit. I didn't pay attention at all, and when the screening was over and the ushers pulled a pop quiz, I did very poorly.

In any event, the few survivors of this war cower in opposing bunkers on the dead planet that Sirius has become. Both sides are terrified of the screamers of the title, which one side devised as a desperation weapon but which became self-sufficient and began manufacturing themselves and upgrading their computer chips until they're now an equal-opportunity predator.

Old pro Peter Weller is the leathery commander of the Alliance survivors, and when he receives word that peace may fi-nally break out, he's ordered to make contact with his opposite numbers and negotiate a cease-fire. With a rookie soldier along, he starts a journey across the wasteland, which looks like any construction project in Minnesota.

Weller is quite good, actually, and gives the film, laden with cheesy special effects, a solid mooring in reality. But the screenwriters, working from a short story by the same Philip K. Dick who provided the raw material for "Blade Runner," aren't up to his professionalism. This is no "Blade Runner," although it recycles many of the same themes, including contemplation of the line between human and machine. (But really: how important is this? Is this really a problem? I mean does anyone confuse an electric razor with himself?)

The film ultimately comes to rest in some kind of underground sewer complex that represents the enemy bunker. It's long on pipes, steam, clanging doors, gratings, metal stairways and the like; in other words, it looks just like every other science-fiction film in the past 20 years.

Toward the end, "Screamers" becomes truly incoherent, with one phony climax piling atop another and one phony revelation piling atop another. I thought the touch where the kid selling popcorn in the lobby turned out to be a screamer was just too much.

'Screamers'

Staring Peter Weller

Directed by Christian Duguay

Released by Triumph

Rated R (violence and gore)

Sun score: **

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