David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981)

In many ways, 1980’s Scanners was David Cronenberg’s first science-fiction film. While all of his earlier “body horror” films and experimental works delved into subject matter that could be considered science fiction—think of the experimental medical procedures and social situations that generate the horror in films from Stereo to The BroodScanners takes this subject matter and uses it as the basis for a science-fiction thriller. Continuing to benefit from tax-shelter financing, Scanners turned out to be a box office hit for Cronenberg and a professional landmark in his move from outsider filmmaker to globally-recognized auteur.

Scanners was an idea that Cronenberg had been kicking around for a while. It had existed in embryonic story forms since the early 70s, as the pre-The Brood concept, “The Sensitives,” and then as an early screenplay called Telepathy 2000 that was shown to exploitation-film trailblazer, Roger Corman. With time-sensitive tax-shelter financing rushing the film into production, Cronenberg began the film without a finished script, improvising the near future world of Scanners in the cityscape of a Montreal winter. Cronenberg has noted that the shooting schedule was supplemented with over nine months of post-production, including several weeks of second unit shooting, to put the pieces together and finalize ideas, but the solidity of Scanners’ basic idea shows through in a film that is remarkably coherent and engrossing in its final form.

The film tells a story about an emerging class of telepaths in the near future and the corporate espionage and violence surrounding their existence and their recruitment by competing interests. The titular “scanners” are telepaths or psychics born with a special ability to read minds and emotions and even possess forms of telekinesis. Using hydrostatic shock and biopathically-induced increases in blood pressure, scanners are able to disrupt other scanners and even make their heads explode, as demonstrated early on in one of the film’s most infamous scenes. The exploding head from this scene, created by then Lucasfilm employee Chris Walas, has endured and gained a second life on the internet, becoming one of the most famous GIFs of all time (as a casual search for “exploding head gif” will shortly prove).

Scanners ends up as an adventure-thriller by way of X-Men, painting a portrait of individuals with special powers that are as much a curse as a blessing. It then delves into the battle over the place of these individuals in a society that fears and mistrusts them. The film opens with the main character, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), finding himself overcome by the effects of his scanning powers in a crowded mall. Vale is subdued and brought to the private security firm, ConSec, by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). Dr. Ruth leads ConSec’s scanner research department, and he hopes to find the remaining scanners in the world and recruit them for ConSec before a rogue scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), can win them to his cause.

Dr. Ruth manages to silence the voices in Vale’s head through the use of the experimental drug ephemerol, and proceeds to introduce him to his special gifts, training him in their use. As Dr. Ruth explains, Revok is killing any of the scanners who refuse to join him and he recruits Vale into the battle against Revok for control of the scanner population. As Cameron Vale, Stephen Lack comes across as a bit of a blank slate, but this serves to make him a perfect projection for the audience as they are introduced to the world of scanners. Not unlike Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, Vale finds himself entering into a wider world that he never knew he was the heir to, encountering new scanners and finding that those whom he trusted may have misled him and those he thought were his enemies were something else.

The film ends with a shocking battle between Vale and Revok, where the boundaries of mind and flesh are blurred in the creation of something entirely new. In this final scene, Scanners goes beyond the usual adventure/self-discovery narrative and reiterates Cronenberg’s usual thematic interests in the unintended results of scientific experimentation, the link between mind and body, and the sinister control of large organizations. Scanners is both the most mainstream adventure Cronenberg had made to this point in his career, but still absolutely a product of his idiosyncratic interests.

While Scanners has more than its share of horrific violence (the aforementioned exploding head is legendary) and dread induced by the state of the main character’s bodies, its story and structure place it much more solidly into the tradition of science-fiction filmmaking. The strange revelations of Scanners offer Vale clarity, giving him a purpose and reason for being; for the protagonists of Cronenberg’s earlier films, the horrifying events of the film confuse or obscure what they thought they knew about themselves or their world. For instance, in Rabid or The Brood, the manifestation of the new flesh in the characters leads only to misery and confusion at one’s identity. In the world of Scanners, one may find oneself more powerful than one ever imagined. It is for this reason that it fits more into the science-fiction tradition of progress and improvement more than pure horror.

In the film, the existence of scanners is revealed not to be the product of evolution (ala X-Men) but rather the byproduct of scientific experimentation. The scanners are themselves a contemporary Frankenstein’s monster; their creator’s identity and relation to the characters plays a central role in the film, not unlike the relation between Tyrell and the replicants in Blade Runner. The scanners are powerful beings, but also accidents. Scanners, for all its thrills and action sequences, fits into the mold of an existential journey of self-discovery and self-determination.

For all its Cronenbergesque elements combined with a fairly engrossing, if standard, adventure thriller plot, one of the ways that Scanners stands out against other lower budget early-80s sci-fi thrillers is in its strong performances from Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. McGoohan’s Dr. Ruth is full of hubris and intensity; the star of The Prisoner makes a memorable character, and like Oliver Reed in The Brood, shows Cronenberg’s ability to utilize a temperamental veteran in a key role. Ironside, in one of his very first roles, showcases why he would go on to be cast as a villain or “heavy” in many later roles, most famously by Paul Verhoeven in Total Recall and Starship Troopers. His voice is also known to a generation of video game fans as the voice of Sam Fisher in the successful Splinter Cell espionage video games. Ironside is both believably dangerous and charismatic as Revok, bringing depth to what is revealed to be a more complex role than initially presented.

Because Cronenberg’s films are so easy to read as auteur-driven pieces of filmmaking, it becomes easy to default to what Cronenberg himself says about them when contemplating their cultural and philosophical resonances. Scanners certainly fits within the Cronenbergesque, with its focus on the way our bodies can be altered by medical intervention and evolution. But Scanners also resonates in a society that is increasingly becoming more and more aware of neurodiversity and even forms of mental illness including depression and schizophrenia.

When Vale encounters Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) and her group of scanners who reject both ConSec and Revok, one can read it as a metaphor for the counterculture and those who don’t want to participate in society. But it’s perhaps even more resonant as a symbol of those who literally experience the world differently on account of their minds and bodies. Scanners reminds us that the body and the material world play a key role in how we perceive the world with our minds, breaking down the Cartesian dichotomy between the two, and perhaps even challenging us to question the pathologization of various forms of neurodiversity and mental illness.

Scanners is successful in part because of its thematic potence, presented amongst the quickly-paced and engrossing science-fiction thriller story. While it's hard to attribute direct causes to why certain films find audiences and others do not, Scanners ended up being Cronenberg’s most successful film to date and his first to top the US box office charts. Its success resulted in several sequels and spinoffs, though none of them would involve Cronenberg in any capacity.

However, the success of Scanners directly led to Cronenberg further becoming a known quantity outside of Canada, and being trusted with larger budgets and able to pursue riskier material as well as attract larger stars to his unique filmic visions. Yet, whatever its legacy, professionally and cinematically, Scanners remains an enjoyable and engrossing science-fiction thriller to this day.

8 out of 10

Scanners (1981, Canada)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Robert Silverman.