“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? The answer is simple: you are a scanner.”
David Cronenberg has had a remarkable career by any measure. His unique combination of grisly genre delights and high-minded meditations on identity, consciousness, the body-mind dichotomy, and transformation have remained constant throughout his extensive filmography. Scanners, Cronenberg’s seventh film, is, in some ways, the most conventional of his early films in the way that it adheres to thriller tenets, yet it’s still a thrilling, powerful film that uniquely anticipates much of the sci-fi Reagan-era anxiety that manifested in cyberpunk.
It also has the most badass head explosion in the history of film.
The head explosion that launched a thousand gifs
In the future, some humans have developed telepathic abilities, known as “scanning.” Scanning, it seems, at least at its most innocuous level, brings on nosebleeds and an upset stomach – sounds like the aftermath of a night out. Most latent scanners stumble about, homeless, solitary, lost, due to the overwhelming nature of having your mind subjected to the constant cacophony of other human’s thoughts. Some, however, have refined their ability and learned to control the chaos in their heads. Of course, mental powers would be highly prized in military and security, so corporation ConSec has invested in a program led by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan in kind of bearded professor X role, although his professor X here is working for the man) to develop scanners into weapons. When a demonstration of scanning results in the above head-explosion disaster at the hands of a renegade scanner named Revok, Dr. Ruth sets out to recruit a new scanner to infiltrate Revok’s group.
Scanners is PK Dick filtered through Cronenberg’s mind – a film about corporate distrust, paranoia, and alienation, hung in a thriller framework. Hero Cameron Vale (a wooden, relatively empty Stephen Lack – the emptiness perhaps deliberate on Cronenberg’s part, as Vale has been living in a hell of inescapable voices or isolation for his entire life) is a broken man when we first meet him, but even later after Ruth’s tutelage, he still feels dangerous and unpredictable, somewhat like Case from William Gibson’s 1984 classic Neuromancer. This is a film of admirable greys, both in terms of its monolithic corporate entities and landscapes and the character’s motivations, morality, and ethics. Nothing here feels simple and Manichean. We identify with Vale because we all feel a bit lost, alienated, unsure. It’s fitting that the film’s climactic clash between Vale and Revok ends ambivalently. Someone has won the day, but the future and moral ground is no less shaky than it was at the beginning.
Of course, being an early Cronenberg film, there’s plenty of violence and body horror in this mutant noir. Blood seeps from bulging veins, heads morph and pulse. While scanner battles really equate to a lot of gurning for the camera, Cronenberg makes it work with those lovely practical effects.
As noted earlier, Stephen Lack’s performance is adequate but not particularly inspiring. Michael Ironsides is as great as ever, though, as the sinister Revok. PatrickMcGoohan also makes a great impression as the vaguely Dr. Frankensteinesque Dr. Ruth, and Robert Silverman is wonderfully weird as the troubled artist Benjamin Peirce. Like most of Cronenberg films, Scanners has a magnificent Howard Shore score. It’s an ominous, epic, operatic affair constructed from strings and icy droning synths. This is a cold film, and Howard’s score amplifies and enhances Mark Irwin’s chilly cinematography.
Scanners is a great film. While it’s not strictly a horror film, there’s more than enough blood and heads exploding to keep any horror fan interested. Cronenberg would go on to make weirder, slicker films, but Scanners still feels vital, smart, and has aged extremely well. Highly recommended.