Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn’t stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit the elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O’Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It for You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn’t really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it’s cheap as chips.
Certainly, it looks like it cost much less than $20m to me; Peter Weller’s the only big name involved, the sets and effects are rudimentary, and the action often feels less than seamless in execution, as if they had do a bodge-up when they realised there was no money left for post-production. Despite that, Screamers has something. A lurking paranoia about the façade of reality common to Dick’s best work pervades the material, even as it bears the appearance of a straight actioner (an issue that also, ultimately, detracts from the generally venerated Total Recall).
In this case, the tech developed by the Alliance to defend themselves against the NEB, intent on mining Sirius 6B, consequential radiation poisoning be damned, has evolved to the extent that it can replicate the human form. The nastiest notions – child Screamers designed to prey on human weakness and so infiltrate them – are out of the 1953 short story, and there’s more than a touch of The Thing to the developing mistrust between the diminishing group.
Weller’s entirely reliable, of course, world-weary and seasoned, instantly adding substance as a counterweight to the spartan production design. Naturally, being made on a budget, it was shot in Canada (there are both snowy and sandy locales). By native Christian Duguay, who worked his way up from straight-to-video Scanners sequels, flirted with movies, settled into a mostly TV career (including Robert Carlyle as Hitler), and has more recently ended up making French flicks (all the better to auteur yourself). He has a natural flair and eye for action, but that doesn’t extend to compensating for the production’s limitations; even though Screamers had a cinema release, the end product reeks of straight-to-video.
Indeed, instead of blundering into an unnecessary (and unnecessarily shitty) remake of Total Recall– the only way to do that effectively would have been to pull back completely from the action beats, rather than double down on them – an adequately funded Screamers remake might be just the ticket (there was a belated 2009 sequel).
The character work here is strictly bare bones (the admission of love in the final reel is a “whatever” moment, if ever there was one), but there’s an economy to the essential structure that bucks the trend of most Dick adaptations (which involve setting up the premise before devolving into an extended chase as a means to beef up the material to feature length). Perhaps go back to the original O’Bannon draft; I’d hazard the need for cigarettes to stay healthy was his touch (“I can’t believe you’ve got to put this shit in your lungs just to neutralise the shit in your lungs“).