by Mel Valentin
Written and directed by David Cronenberg, "Scanners," a Canadian-made science fiction/horror film released in 1981, became commercially successful primarily due to its intentionally outrageous gore (e.g., an exploding head, and the telepathic duel to the death, complete with spontaneous combustion and bursting arteries), and an intriguing, if clumsily handled, plot about mutants or “scanners” with the ability to read minds, move objects invisibly via thought alone, and remotely control the biological processes of unsuspecting victims (a premise borrowed from 1968's "The Power"). Not satisfied with a “mutants taking over the world” storyline, Cronenberg included an industrial espionage angle, "evil" pharmaceutical companies (are there any other kind?), and a conspiracy between unscrupulous, amoral scientists and greedy corporate executives. For good measure, Cronenberg throws in the obligatory romantic subplot (he does next to nothing with it). Does it all hang together? It does, but only partially and only sporadically. If anything, "Scanners" is still the work of a talented, ambitious amateur, albeit one whose development into a science fiction/horror auteur was only a year (and a film) away, with "Videodrome" in 1982.Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a mentally unstable homeless man in slightly seedy clothes and overcoat, is caught and tranquilized by government or corporate operatives after “scanning” a woman in a shopping mall. The woman, it seems, has suffered an epileptic seizure only moments after sharing an unkind observation about Vale with a friend. Awakening inside an abandoned warehouse, Vale meets Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a scientist with a hidden agenda. Ruth serves the all-important purpose of offering Vale (and the audience) key expository information. Vale’s scanning abilities (and the constant, insistent voices he hears inside his head) can be managed and controlled through the use of Ephemerol. Ruth informs Vale that other scanners just like him exist. Some scanners have disappeared, others have joined an underground group led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). He asks for Vale’s help in tracking down Revok’s group, turning Vale into an amateur spy of sorts.
"Undone by a weak storyline, even weaker performances, and a low budget."
Ruth helpfully gives Vale one lead, Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman), a reclusive sculptor/scanner. Even more unstable than Vale, Pierce uses art, specifically sculpture to control the voices inside his head (living on an isolated farm also helps. Vale, however, becomes the pursued as well as the pursuer after Revok’s machine-gun toting henchmen make an appearance, but not before Vale is given a name, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill). Easily tracking Kim down (presumably with the offscreen help of a telephone directory), Vale encounters a group of scanners experimenting with sharing and pooling their thoughts. Revok’s henchmen reappear (Vale, it seems, has spectacularly bad luck, or rather others do). Vale and Obrist flee. From there, Scanners' storyline gets more difficult to follow, with Vale (finally) suspecting Dr. Ruth stated reasons for conscripting him to find Revok, Vale “scanning” a computer system for information, the scanner secret itself, and a face-to-face meeting with Revok (insert exposition-heavy dialogue here), which leads to the signature telepathic duel between the two characters, with, of course, the fate of the world in the balance (or a tiny sliver of wintry Canada, take your pick).
As the preceding description suggests, Cronenberg throws quite a few, potentially interesting ideas into his script, given the limited resources at his disposal. Cronenberg’s direction, however, falls short of creating suspense, tension, compelling characters, or anything of visual interest, with the exception of Scanners’ signature set pieces. Too often, Cronenberg relies on characters sharing key information with Vale, rather than Vale actively discovering that information for himself. Scanners also seems to be missing transition or character-building scenes, scenes that make later character turns or revelations credible when they eventually happen (e.g., the obligatory romantic subplot, Dr. Ruth’s unlikely spin into mental confusion and anguish, or the final revelations spoon-fed by Revok to Vale about Dr. Ruth and their relationship, which comes as an almost complete surprise to the audience).To be fair, Cronenberg began filming "Scanners" on short notice, with only two weeks of pre-production (it definitely shows) and an unfinished screenplay (which may explain the uneven pacing, awkward, stiff performances and line readings, and missing transition scenes). Still, looking back at Cronenberg’s thirty-year filmmaking career, "Scanners" retains some interest, for ‘old-school’ horror fans and Cronenberg fans carefully sifting his early work for the ideas and obsessions that mark Cronenberg’s more mature work, including the tell-tale obsession with technology and how technology can irrevocably change the end users, often with unintended consequences. In the two, justly remembered scenes of the scanners wrecking havoc on each other, "Scanners" also reflects Cronenberg’s ongoing fascination (already evident in "Rabid", "Shivers," and "The Brood") with the impact and effects invasive violence (and scientific experimentation) can have on the human body.
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originally posted: 09/23/05 15:25:07