''Screamers,'' ''Proteus,'' ''Unforgettable,'' and ''The City of Lost Children'' have conspiracies and monsters galore

By Nisid Hajari
July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

New sci-fi videos make technology the villain

For a genre distinguished by its tricorders and tractor beams, science fiction can be awfully antiscientific. ”Goddamn Morse code was better than this virtual reality s—!” complains crusty rebel commander Peter Weller in Screamers, consoling all those Luddites who can’t tell Netware from Tupperware. These days, such exasperation has become all too familiar: Judging by a crop of smaller sci-fi films just out on video, our threats du jour aren’t the bug-eyed aliens of Independence Day, but shadowy and corrupt human forces that are usually led by the guys with all the gadgets.

Indeed, sci-fi’s penchant for self-criticism renders it ideally qualified to express the range of contemporary paranoias. Movies like Screamers and the straight-to-video Proteus — basically horror flicks haunted by man-made monsters instead of serial killers — comfortably inhabit this galaxy. As do The Last Seduction director John Dahl’s psychic detective story, Unforgettable, and The City of Lost Children, a dystopian morality play from twisted French filmmakers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Delicatessen). A potentially loopy sense of conspiracy becomes much more palatable when disguised as a mistrust of technology. Fearing the FBI is crazy; fearing your VCR is understandable.

Those twin anxieties come together in Screamers, the only one of these otherworldly tales set on another planet. Sirius 6B, a mining colony ravaged by the rapacious New Economic Bloc, presents a world scarred by betrayal. Abandoned by his Earth-bound superiors, Col. Joseph Hendricksson (Weller) exudes a jaded anomie in keeping with the denuded landscape; like the emblematic agents of The X-Files, he can trust no one. The film, however, puts the onus of unreliability upon machines — to wit, the slice-and-dice gophers known as Screamers, who have learned how to assume human form and have turned against their creators. Already a loner, Weller now has to worry about which of his few friends are actually blood-sucking robots.

Unfortunately, the movie only exploits his dilemma as an excuse for interplanetary slasher high jinks, where potential decapitation lurks around every corner. The abominably dull Proteus doesn’t even bother with the philosophical trappings: Stranding three mismatched couples aboard a secret oil rig when their drug deal falls apart, this British thriller (made by folks associated with the Hellraiser series) simply sets a genetic mutant straight out of Alien on their tail and lets the blood flow. As hapless as those cheerleaders who open doors for ax murderers, the cast functions only as fodder for maudlin moral lessons: Science is bad, and only the innocent (the narc and the girlfriend who hates drugs) survive.

Unforgettable complicates those supposed truisms, as an assistant medical examiner (Ray Liotta) uses a newly developed drug to appropriate memories from the dead in order to clear himself of his wife’s murder. The escalating plot twists that energized Dahl’s Seduction and Red Rock West here, too, serve to hard-boil his characters, creating a universe where no one (except perhaps Linda Fiorentino, as a shrinking-violet scientist) is innocent. Set in Seattle, this fantasy hardly needs to diverge from traditional mystery, other than to replace forensic clues with extracted brain fluid. What both share — and what lends Unforgettable its creepy allure — is the timely sense that corruption is both underlying and ineradicable.

While all of these films indulge that smothering suspicion, only The City of Lost Children translates it into purely visual terms. And how: Despite the limitations of the small screen, Jeunet and Caro’s postapocalyptic vision gleefully evokes a world inspired by carnival grotesquerie — all retro fixtures, fun-house distortions, and grossly exaggerated faces. The plot itself — something to do with a ballsy urchin (Judith Vittet) and gold-hearted strong man (Ron Perlman of TV’s Beauty and the Beast) trying to save an unnamed town’s children from a madman who steals their dreams — is largely, and inconsequentially, inscrutable. Instead, the action is all aesthetic: Gawking at freakishness (including a two-headed, four-armed schoolmarm), the camera marks its heroine by her beauty — the only traditionally ”pretty” element in the film. Like the best sci-fi, City both expresses and soothes our worst fears. Vittet’s radiant baby face moves comfortingly amid the turgid squalor of the waterfront megalopolis, ready to undermine the future from within. Screamers: C Proteus: D+ Unforgettable: B+ The City of Lost Children: A-