David Cronenberg’s Scanners is one of his straightest pictures in that it’s relatively a straightforward science fiction thriller. It features car chases and an exploding head and a climactic showdown. The 1981 movie is wired as a mainstream hit, lacking the confrontational grotesqueries of other Cronenberg outings.
There isn’t a lot of overt psychology or sexuality in Scanners. Cronenberg’s screenplay was a work in progress, with pages written throughout the shooting process. This may have caused some ideas to settle without much reflection, which in turn lends to the orthodoxy of the finished product.
Stephen Lack stars as Cameron Vale, a homeless man who has telepathic and telekinetic powers. He is sought by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the program head at private security firm ConSec. He’s in charge of the “scanners,” a program that uses powerful people like Cameron for various corporate and militaristic purposes.
When scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) goes rogue and develops his own underground network of scanners, war is on. Dr. Ruth helps Cameron realize the fullness of his power to take on Revok, which leads him to hook up with fellow scanner Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) and a world of assassins, drug treatments and computers.
Scanners, like Rabid and Shivers, copes with a corporate world that wants to bend science to its will. The notorious head-exploding scene takes place as ConSec is showing off the ability of scanners to an audience of corporate heads and financiers. The potential for such telepathic and telekinetic abilities is noteworthy and terrifying.
Regrettably, the corporate angle is only flirted with and doesn’t even reach the character-shaping depths of Fast Company. Scanners sticks its more forceful critiques on the border, like when it discusses the “medical procedure” of trepanation after a character tries to drill into his own head to stop the voices.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of Scanners, apart from the Dick Smith effects, lies in the use of the drug “Ephemerol.” The ironically-named drug is connected to ConSec and to a hindering of the scanners’ powers, which in turn has been using a computer program called Ripe as a distribution method. Later, the computer system is “hacked” by Cameron.
Cronenberg’s prescience is convincing, as Cameron reaches into the system with the power of his mind and ConSec’s security head (Lawrence Dane) is surprised to learn that someone could break in without even being in the room. It all done through the telephone line, he’s told.
The Howard Shore score is worth mentioning, as it really digs at the heart of the matter. The music uses prodding strings to denote the lightning storms inside the mind. When the climax involves two men staring at each other, a lot of the heavy lifting falls to Shore and the melodic magic he weaves.
Scanners is a good movie in that it accomplishes its goals and rounds out into a quality science fiction thriller. It’s not particularly enlightening or provocative, but it does make for satisfying popcorn cinema. Sometimes, that’s enough.