“You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.”
Written and directed by David Cronenberg, Scanners is filled with smart ideas and visceral body horror – an intelligent science-fiction film inspired by literary sources, notably a chapter in William S Borough’s Naked Lunch. In fact, the whole film has a distinct 1950s feel to it, despite the gore; this is a story it is easy to imagine John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids) writing, for example.
For some unknown reason, a small section of the population has become “scanners” or, in the words of pharmaceutical company Consec’s CEO, “telepathic curiosities” – people who can read the minds of others, and who can inflict terrible pain and control at will. Rather than gain power, these scanners are generally outcasts; the mental confusion caused by the constant onslaught of human thought doesn’t allow them to integrate properly in society. This is how we are first introduced to Cameron (Stephen Lack); stealing cigarettes and stray chips in a shopping mall, unable to stop himself from scanning a disapproving old lady, causing her to have a seizure. Captured by Consec, and trained by Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), Cameron learns of a small faction of scanners run by the powerful, power-hungry Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside).
Scanners features several memorable moments – most famous is the early “exploding head” scene. Cronenberg’s gore is tangible and disturbing, expertly realised through make-up and clever camera work. Yet it is never gratuitous, nor does it ever replace or overwhelm the intelligent concept at the film’s core. Much of the film’s narrative takes place in conference rooms and office buildings; it is surprisingly restrained, with a formality permeating every scene. Everyone wears suits, dialogue is restricted entirely to narrative necessity – the audience hears nothing more than what is required to understand events – and the overarching theme is less about the individuals in the film, and more a commentary on scientific advances and their effect on society as a whole.
Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and deliberate; many aspects of the filmmaking are achieved with great success. Most of the sets are minimalist and functional; blank walls and clinical spaces that contrast perfectly with the more overt symbolic representations filling an artist’s isolated workshop, which becomes the location of an important, violent sequence midway through the film. Here, there is a great moment of self-awareness as Cameron and the artist, Benjamin, discuss their abilities while sitting in a gigantic severed head – for all intents and purposes, in this moment they become the voices they have struggled so much to repress.
The film’s score is highly effective also – and necessarily so. Thoughts are heard by the scanners as though they were spoken underwater; barely intelligible, they are unsettling and frustrating. High pitched tones and synthetic noises permeate many scenes also, cleverly mimicking the clear discomfort that results from being scanned.
Ironside is excellent as Darryl, a man who accepts his own mental superiority and the freedom that comes with it. In a performance reminiscent of those of Jack Nicholson, he is sinister, with a cold smile that never reaches his eyes, and a muted insanity lurking just beneath the surface. Problematically, the film’s hero, Cameron, is a less interesting character, blandly portrayed by Lack. While his blank stare and confused gaze is at times effective, his performance feels hollow; particularly in comparison to Darryl, he lacks the charisma to really carry the narrative.
Much has been written about Scanners, and it is easy to see why. It’s a film that invites analysis, that feels like a metaphor for a deeper, real social problem. It is also gripping, despite its slow, detached pace, with enough twists, turns, and unexpected reveals to surprise viewers up until the last moments. Although the eyeball-popping, head-exploding, and shotgun-blasting action are by far the film’s most visually memorable scenes, these are not the most interesting aspects of it; the concepts within Cronenberg’s functional, intelligent script are far more disturbing than their violent representations.