Screamers (1995)

- by John Bruni

S creamers, based upon a short story written by legendary author Philip K. Dick, is a terrifying take on the final result of an ultra-modern war and its weapons. Readers lucky enough to stumble upon Dick’s stories in the Sixties – though such people might say growing up in those days was not necessarily all good luck – would have reSirius 6Bsonated deeply with Dick’s creations. Those who lived then had a peculiarly poignant sense that their life might end at any moment. Yes, doomsday may still be approaching in the 21st century, but there was something intimately special to the knowledge that all civilization on Earth could end in minutes and that, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, it almost did. Terrorist threats and impending natural catastrophes, horrible though they be, are freighted with a different context than the Damoclesian threat of instant worldwide nuclear annihilation.

In Screamers, Philip K. Dick conjures up the spectacle of relentless, unending warfare dedicated to the elimination of all human life. Dick’s manuscript is the writer’s equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting: an endless, silent scream. Incredibly, Philip K. Dick had the foresight to write his story, originally titled Second Variety, in 1953, long before the rest of the world could imagine the horror of automaton-guided warfare. Most readers encountered Second Variety later on via anthologies printed in the Sixties.

Screamers hews closely to the original story line, depicting an off-earth world, Sirius 6B, in which a war breaks out between two corporations eager to lay sole claim to that world’s supply of  “Berynium.” A teaspoon of it is said to contain enough energy to drive a spaceship from Earth to Saturn in a day. Corporate warfare is not a concept invented by Dick, but he parses it out to the nth degree. This war produces nothing much more than endless dust and rubble and reduces the throngs living on what was once a beautiful planet teeming with life to a small handful of people. The Berynium mines also devastate the planet with intense radioactive pollution; neither side can live long without smoking special red cigarettes that counteract the radioactive toxins.

The good guys – a meaningless concept when one considers there are two corporations at war here and the soldiers are employees – are at the point of being exterminated. To come from behind and win the war they create automated underground factories that build and release countless numbers of killer robots. The robots, or screamers – so named because the only thing the victim hears before being shredded is a shrill mechanical shriek – overwhelm the other side. The losing side, known as “NEB”, sends a soldier to initiate terms of surrender with the winning “Alliance”. He manages to carry a message canister to the winning side’s command bunker just before being shredded by the screamers. Soldiers come out to retrieve his message capsule, looking on with disgust as the machines finish churning the remains of his body into the sand. One man observes, “These things are on our side.” Another soldier replies dubiously, “Peter WellerOur side’s the good side, right?”

An Alliance ship crash lands a short time later. The ship’s survivors are not equipped with protective transponders; the screamers kill most of them. The Alliance commander on Sirius 6B, Hendricksson (masterfully played by Peter Weller) soon learns from the survivor, Ace Jefferson (Andrew Lauer) that the Alliance has been deceiving them. The Alliance has abandoned the war on Sirius 6B two years previously, having found a new supply of Berynium on Triton 4 that can be mined there without exposing the planet to radioactive pollution. The Alliance ship that crashed was being moved to Triton 4, and it had a nuclear weapons factory on board intended for use in the start of a new war on Triton 4. Hearing this, Hendricksson and his men realize they’ve been fighting a pointless war and may never get back to Earth. One soldier is stunned at the revelation. “Get your head out of the lilacs, man,” the hard-bitten Hendricksson tells him. “Why do they keep sending us provisions,” the man wonders. “Too many families on Earth would raise hell,” comes the answer. Later, back inside the bunker, Hendricksson takes apart one of the new screamers. “Too smart...modified itself”, he says when he sees its inner workings.

In response to the NEB peace petition, Hendricksson and Ace leave their bunker to meet the enemy’s negotiators and end the pointless war. Ace still has instincts that make him want to fire upon the “enemy”. Hendricksson calls him “Johnny Gung Ho”. Ace, stepping out of the boring pseudo-normality of the bunker, seems intimidated by the wrecked world outside. “You comin’, or you breathin’ hard?” Hendricksson asks Ace sarcastically, urging him to start walking.

As they begin their long trek to rendezvous with the NEB, hunter-killer automata race up to them at terrifying speed, only to come to a sudden stop. The team wears the transponders that give safe passage past these chillingly efficient mechanical abattoirs. Clearly, killer robots such as these were never programmed with Asimov’s First Law (“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”) Realistically speaking, a Philip K. Dick robot in its simplest form can be built much more readily than one designed to obey Asimov’s First Law. A robot that can sense body heat and apply a weapon to its source is a fairly simple device. By way of example, one could quite readily take a Honda Asimo robot, available for purchase now, and program it to apply a power saw to anything that emits heat at 98.6°. Our love for gadgets aside, there really is no difference in consciousness between a Honda Asimo and a power saw. The leap to designing a robot that would never, under any circumstance, hurt a human being is a vastly more complicated prospect.

 The first iterations of Dick’s robots are viciously efficient mobile meat grinders that churn their victims into unrecognizable dust. Unfortunately, as Hendricksson has come to realize, the automated factories that build these weapons have the ability to self-upgrade; they constantly improve upon their designs. Philip K. Dick’s genius always amazes; computers that existed when he wrote the basis for Screamers were the size of a city block and used vacuum tubes consuming the energy of an entire power station. Today’s simplest pocket calculator has more computing power than the biggest computer that existed in 1953. Dick’s automated, self-improving factories may not have been unique in the annals of science fiction, but his version has a believable “feel” even now, some fifty years later.

In time, the killers that were no more complex than an Asimo are replaced with robots that mimic real human beings. The first models succeed at this only for a few minutes before detection; later models are much more sophisticated. This is akin to what one might experience on a phone line today. Computer programs are in use that answer phone calls – most don’t fool callers at all – but some programs can lull unsophisticated callers into thinking they are speaking with a real person. Researchers who delve into artificial intelligence say one marker for success in their field will be the creation of a program, residing on a silicon chip, that can deceive people conversing with it into thinking they’re talking with a real, live human being.

As Hendricksson and Ace walk, they come upon a little boy with a teddy bear. His plaintive request, “Can I come Jennifer Rubinwith you?” tugs at their hearts, and they let him tag along. Eventually, they meet up with the opposing forces. For the sake of drama, some details of this encounter will be left out. Suffice it to say, the viewer will be alarmed and surprised by the scene. Once inside the enemy bunker, Hendricksson learns that there are only three NEB survivors; the robots have slaughtered all the rest. The first survivor is Becker, a resilient soldier played by Roy Dupuis. The second is Ross, a man driven to the brink of sanity by stress, (Charles Powell). The third survivor is the erotically interesting Jessica, played by Jennifer Rubin, a charismatic freelance soldier currently on the NEB side but working for nobody but herself.

Eventually, the few people left alive in Screamers come to realize they have run up against a slight problem. The killer robots have made a little design change. Now the machines kill all humans, not just those who aren’t wearing immunity transponders, and they have become infinitely better at disguising themselves. The underground factories build humanoids good enough to hang out, undetected, with real humans, machines that think and act in ways no different from real people. Like Blade Runner – a tech-noire masterpiece created from another Philip K. Dick story – Screamers asks, “What is human?”

Hendricksson decides he must return to Earth to warn people and, revealing the existence of an emergency evacuation ship, he fights his way to it with Jessica at his side. Without giving anything away, the stunning conclusion of Screamers fits quite nicely with MAD and the rest of what Dick prophetically envisioned in this and other works. Directed by Christian Duguay in 1995, the film, and its surprise ending, is well worth watching. Sirius 6B and its robots may not have been animated on screen by 21st century computers, but the actors carry the show and, like a Hitchcock film, Screamers doesn’t need to show much more than a protruding saw blade at work to evoke horror.

As for Philip K. Dick, one must wonder at times if Dick was a time traveler; he had an extraordinary ability to envision pressing issues society wouldn’t face for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. This is one of the reasons why, years after Dick’s death, his manuscripts are so highly prized by Hollywood. There are plenty of whiz-bang science fiction movies around, but a Philip K. Dick script takes the genre to a completely new level. Speaking of the script, kudos to screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores for actually improving upon Dick’s original story while remaining entirely true to it.

In Screamers, Dick envisioned a weapon more terrifying than the 100-megaton nukes of the Cold War. Alas, due to humankind’s need to defend humanity from, well, itself, the unthinkable genesis of autonomous killer robots has already come to pass. Military weapons designers spend billions each year to automate the battlefield, with good reason. It is far cheaper, when considering philosophical and publicity issues, to sacrifice an autonomous combat weapon than it is to lose a living, breathing soldier. Robots that defy Asimov’s First Law are already on the scene, obeying the simpler instruction set of 

Seek target, initiate behavior necessary to lull target defenses, bring weapons in range and destroy target.” Those instructions are a basic tenet of 21st century automated weaponry, and our ever-more-sophisticated computer chips are giving those weapons real teeth, teeth only Philip K. Dick could imagine back in 1953.

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