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. ^

Braveheart (1995)

2014 #87
Mel Gibson | 178 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BraveheartI figured I ran the risk of affecting the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum if I posted this review yesterday (because of course I have that kind of reach and influence), but after Mel Gibson’s historical(ly-dubious) epic wound up on my 2014 WDYMYHS list, it seemed too good an occasion to miss. So whether Scotland is about to become independent or not, here are my thoughts on a movie that hopefully didn’t actually influence anyone’s vote…

I say that because Braveheart, for thems that don’t know, is the Oscar-winning story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scot who led a rebellion against English rule and King Edward ‘Longshanks’ (Patrick McGoohan) at the end of the 13th Century. That much, at least, is true — I think. Y’see, Braveheart has been described as “the least accurate historical epic of all time”, its plot and subplots riddled with changes that go above and beyond the usual tweaks needed to make a coherent narrative out of a true-life tale. You don’t have to dig very hard on the internet to find those errors catalogued, so I’m going to set them aside: this is a movie, not a history lecture; and while I can completely understand the frustration its inaccuracies must provoke in those who’d rather see the truth on screen, it’s not as if rewriting the past is anything new for dramatists (to stick with Scottish examples, Macbeth — resplendent as it is with cold regicide and prophetic witchcraft — is based on history), and we can (should?) view it as an entertainment rather than an education.

Blue da-ba-deeJudged as that, Gibson’s three-hour (near as damn it) movie is a pleasingly traditional epic. Many big films these days are just long, but the story here has scope too — it’s about a war, essentially. And war means battles, which are a particular highlight. The standout is surely the famed Battle of Stirling Bridge — you know, the one where the Scots moon the English. Funny and all, but just a small part of a larger sequence. Gibson has the confidence to show the build-up to the fighting, outline the tactics that will be used, and only then launch into the fray. It’s this measured approach that makes it so effective, rather than the crash-bang-wallop straight-to-the-slaughter style of more recent movies. Due to its notoriety I’d assumed the aforementioned clash was the film’s climax, but it’s actually the centrepiece, pretty precisely in the middle of the film. Fortunately there’s enough else going on (because this isn’t actually An Action Movie) that it doesn’t make things feel lopsided.

A big plus comes courtesy of the era the film was made in. It’s the mid-’90s, still a few years away from “let’s use CGI for everything!”, so it was all done ‘for real’. That means great sets and location builds, stunning scenery that’s beautifully photographed, and swathes of extras in the battles. There’s something much more viscerally exciting about watching a few hundred men run at each for real than watching a few hundred thousand polygons do it. The downside of the aforementioned era is some occasionally dated direction, in particular at least one sequence that goes overboard with the slow-mo, but almost everything becomes dated with time — it’s not as bad as, say, Robin Hood with a mullet from Prince of Thieves.

Evil KingIt also doesn’t suffer from that film’s accent issues. Mel Gibson isn’t an American-Scot (or an Australian one), instead delivering an accent that sounds passable to this Englishman. He believed he was too old for the part, which may well be true, but when the rest of it is so inaccurate what does that matter? He’s a solid leading man and a commanding-enough presence. The supporting cast are an array of recognisable Celtish faces — including at least one Irishman playing a Scot and a Scot playing an Irishman — and, because they’re from our fair isles, of course they’re all brilliant. Best of all, however, is Patrick McGoohan. He makes for a fantastic Evil King, given some juicy lines that are even juicier thanks to his delivery. He may not be moustache-twirling-ly memorable like an Alan Rickman creation, but any scene is enlivened by his presence.

Interestingly, Braveheart’s Best Picture Oscar win was the only time it took that gong — no other award or critics group saw fit to deem it 1995’s best movie. So what’s wrong with it? Well, that’s hard to pin down precisely. It’s a little politically simplistic, with the Bad Oppressive English and the Good Honest Scots, including inventing all sorts of stuff to sway the arguments in both those directions. Plenty of old-fashioned epics do exactly the same thing, but I guess by the ’90s we were demanding a little more nuance. The same can be said of the characters — there’s nothing wrong, but aside from Gibson’s grandstanding speeches and McGoohan’s first-class villainy, the only really memorable turn is from the morally-troublesome camply homosexual prince — and that’s a whole can of representational worms.

Royally f**kedThen there’s that issue of historical accuracy. I know I said we should ignore it, but even if you accept fiction films shouldn’t be slavish history lessons (and not everyone does), how far can they ignore the facts? Often with such films the viewer assumes they’re true until someone says, “actually, I think you’ll find in reality…” Not so with Braveheart: you don’t have to know anything of Scottish history to guess that the face-to-face chats (and more, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) between Wallace and the future-Queen must be almost entirely poppycock (and, in fact, you can drop that “almost”).

How much that matters — indeed, how much any of those issues are a problem — will vary from one viewer to the next. For some, Braveheart goes beyond the pale. It does make for a rollickingly good story, though.

4 out of 5

Braveheart was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.