Scanners (1981)

When placing a film in the context of a writer/director’s work, expectations can often taint a film experience. With David Cronenberg’s Scanners, I found myself disappointed by the fact it wasn’t a brilliant insight into some socio-psychological issue. But the more I think about Scanners, the more I find it has enough of its own merits even if I find the overall film lacking.

As a supernatural story, it’s got a great layering effect. The conceit of the story is that psychic beings known as scanners have emerged into society and two different factions are battling over control of these entities. One is a secret organizations of science led by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that are trying to study and understand the scanners.

The other faction is led by a particularly unstable scanner known as Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a previous mental patient that attempted to lobotomize himself before deciding to unite the scanners. Tossed into this web of intrigue is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a particularly strong scanner tasked to find Darryl for the secret organization.

David Cronenberg builds a fantastic world and explores the power of psychics in some interesting ways, pushing the bounds of what is typically understood as psychic and wondering how it might interact with some of the technological advances we’ve made. However, since the story is more of a cloak and dagger affair, there’s never a strong sense of how the larger world might react to such a development.

The story is built around a number of compelling mysteries. There are a lot of moments throughout the film where Cronenberg gives an audience a glimpse of all the stuff going on behind the scenes and this adds to the ambiguity and uncertainty of various people’s relationships and motivations.  And with the power of the scanners, it does bring into question whether or not certain people are simply the puppets of certain scanners.

In this regard, Cronenberg does explore one of the core ideas of his films: the loss of control. As science and technology progress, Cronenberg sees that more power means less control for those who don’t have the power, creating this potent social divide. Scanners does explore that concept, but it doesn’t have the immediacy or potency of his other films.

Scanners big flaw is that Cameron is a dull protagonist. For the most part, he’s a blank slate with little individual personality, motivation or psychology. The film teases an edgier side to his persona, but he never becomes a character with a meaningful internal conflict like most of Croneneberg’s protagonists.

Scanners is by no means a bad film, but after watching films like The Fly, Videodrome and A History of Violence, Scanners seems a bit pedantic. It might be Cronenberg’s most realized world, but it comes with the sacrifice of not feeling connected to our own world. Being social relevant isn’t a prerequisite for being a good film but it is part of the draw of Cronenberg film and the lack is felt.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing