Scanners January 6, 2018
Louis Del Grande
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
The ads for David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) are intriguing enough. “Ten seconds, the pain begins,” goes the first part of the original poster’s tagline. “Fifteen seconds, you can’t breathe. Twenty seconds, you explode.” All is supplemented by the ghoulish, hand-drawn image of a man who seems on the verge of experiencing this assumedly ominously induced explosion. Taking what we know about scanners into consideration – that there are about 240 of them on Earth, that their thoughts can kill – we wonder: Is this man a scanner, or is he being "scanned"?
Our being drawn to the film comes after just a quick glance at this artwork and this tagline, and a similar reaction seems to have applied to audiences of 1981, too. After releasing seven features to so-so box office and critical reception, the horrific sci-fi chiller Scanners was writer-director Cronenberg’s first bona fide hit. Critics were more receptive than usual; the budget was made back several times over. Suddenly, Cronenberg made the transition from cult talent to semi-mainstream provocateur, establishing his status as a major talent.
In comparison to the preceding features in Cronenberg's filmography (save for his anomalistic 1979 car movie Fast Company) and the ones coming afterward, though, Scanners is fairly conventional. While other facets of the director's oeuvre utilized body horror trademarks as ways to either satirize or allegorize relevant societal subjects (like divorce, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the various exploitations of the entertainment industry), Scanners is a straightforward race-against-time thriller with a neat premise and an inspired set of special effects that makes it seem like more than that.
In the Cronenberg tradition, it transforms what sounds like ‘50s science-fiction cheese into something serious and cinematic. Scanners takes place in a future where there exists a subdivision of the human race called scanners. Like the X-Men, to which they’ve recently been compared, they boast extraordinary powers that could spell trouble for humankind if utilized improperly. Like computers, scanners are able to survey, or at least decode, the DNA of the population. Born with additional telepathic and telekinetic psychic powers, they can “short out” a human just as well as a virus could a computer; so in essence, once a scanner targets you, they can do whatever they’d like with your body.
In light of their increased proliferation in the Canada in which the film is set, private security firm ConSec has unveiled a plan to use scanners as potential weapons. But the previewing of this plan goes south from the moment it begins: the scanner used for the demonstration, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), goes rogue and immediately kills the person leading the presentation. (This makes for the movie’s most unforgettable scene: we witness the slaughtered’s head quite literally explode.) This prompts the program's leader, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), to enlist the help of the recently captured scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) to track down Revok and bring him to justice. In his makeshift investigation, Vale teams up with one of the few lionhearted scanners, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), but also learns that the difference between Ruth and Revok actually isn’t much.
The following adventure’s simplistic, and so are the characterizations. Scanners is uncomplicated and pulpy, which seems odd when compared to the cerebral messages and aesthetics of other Cronenberg works. But through its deceptive simplicity could Scanners be seen as a semi-pick me up. The filmmaker’s usually so cynical in his ideas (and so indifferent in his presentations of gore and psychological peril) that the fantastical
misadventures the feature provides make for a welcome change. His recognizable aesthetic’s still here; he just seems to be having a better time than usual. Too bad, then, that Cronenberg’s actors aren’t as good as they usually are: stiffness is so prevalent, it’s as if they learned their lines phonetically. (This could also be seen as a positive attribute, though: one could argue that the roboticism of Lack and O’Neill’s performances enhance the idea that they’re freakish outsiders.)
But even the lack of performative oomph doesn't much undermine Scanners' uncommon intelligence – or sense of fun. Cronenberg had certainly made, and would make, better. But if the film proves anything, it’s that a true artiste at his peak can make something interesting even if the product’s relatively minor. B+