Scanners (1981)

2015 #93
David Cronenberg | 103 mins | TV | 16:9 | Canada / English | 18 / R

If you’re versed in sci-fi/fantasy cinema, you’ve heard of Scanners even if you haven’t seen it: it’s the one with the (in)famous exploding head. That moment is distinctly less shocking for those of us coming to the film as a new viewer at this point: gore perpetuates genre cinema nowadays, so it’s less striking,* and the scene it’s in is quite obvious, so you know it’s coming. Fortunately, Scanners is so much more than one famous moment.

Social outcast Cameron (Steven Lack) can hear other people’s thoughts. When he’s apprehended by weapons firm ConSec, he discovers from scientist Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that he is far from alone. ConSec have been attempting to control these so-called scanners and weaponise them; one, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has other ideas, and is waging a counter war. Ruth wants to enlist Cameron to stop Revok. So begins what I suppose you might call a sci-fi espionage thriller, as Cameron finds his way into the underground scanner community and Revok’s spies in ConSec learn of their plans…

Scanners seems to have a mixed level of appreciation within writer-director David Cronenberg’s CV — even going no further than Wikipedia, you can find review quotes that swing between calling it “an especially important masterwork” and a movie that “might have been a Grand Guignol treat [but is marred by] essential foolishness”. Whether it’s a masterwork or not I wouldn’t care to say, but as a rough-round-the-edges genre thriller, I found it mightily entertaining.

As our hero, Lack isn’t much cop. If you were being kind you could write his oddness off as a product of Cameron’s reclusive lifestyle, but I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice. There are worse performances in the history of genre cinema though, and it’s not like his emotional journey or something is the core of the film. As if to make up for it, McGoohan is of course excellent, acting everyone else off the screen, while Ironside makes for an excellent villain, naturally. Some say that the final psychic battle, between Lack and Ironside, is underwhelming, but I thought it was excellently realised, a tense and effective struggle. Such brilliant effects and sequences are scattered throughout the film.

I do like a good genre movie, and Scanners manages to mash together a couple of my favourites — primarily, science fiction and espionage/undercover mystery-thrillers — in a way that, unless I’m forgetting something, we’ve seen surprisingly rarely. It’s not quite “a Bond film with telekinetics”, but if it were, that’s perhaps the only way I’d’ve found it more enjoyable.

4 out of 5

Scanners is on the Horror Channel tonight at 9pm, and again tomorrow night at 2:15am.

* Though, in isolation, bad enough that I changed my mind about using it as the header image for this review. ^

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