Criterion // 1981 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 29th, 2014
Their thoughts can kill!
"Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy."
For years, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner) has been studying a rare condition which occurs in a very small percentage of humans. It seems there are some individuals who have strange telepathic powers. These humans are known as "scanners," and Ruth is working in collaboration with a large corporation in the hopes of eventually finding a way to weaponize the phenomenon. Alas, when a scanner terrorist (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers) disrupts one of Ruth's public demonstrations and kills several people, the doctor's research grinds to a halt. In an effort to get things running again, Ruth sends a very special, recently-discovered scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) on a secret mission to find the terrorist and destroy his organization.
In past interviews, David Cronenberg has admitted that Scanners was one of his most difficult filmmaking experiences. Working on a bigger budget than his previous films (scuzzy, effective little horror movies like The Brood and Rabid) but forced to complete things in a shorter timeframe than he wanted, the film serves as a transition point of sorts in Cronenberg's career. The script is a little more conventional and a little messier than most of his other work (the latter problem is undoubtedly due to the fact that the script wasn't even completed once filming began), but it's unquestionably a Cronenberg film. Jam-packed with nifty sci-fi ideas and boasting a couple of now-iconic special effects sequences, the film ultimately overcomes some conventional story beats and a dull central performance.
Like everyone else, the first thing I heard about Scanners was that it was, "the movie where a guy's head explodes." Well, a guy's head does indeed explode, and it's quite something to see (the practical effects used in this sequence still have a raw power in contrast to the more "realistic" CGI blood and gore we're treated to these days). Still, a movie needs more than a good gross-out moment to make it worth watching, and Cronenberg naturally has more on his mind than mere pulpy extravagance. There's some genuinely thought-provoking pseudoscience on display throughout the film -- the actual scientific mumbo-jumbo can't be taken seriously, of course, but the ethical ideas the film explores are certainly worth chewing on. Cronenberg's version of telepathy isn't the awe-inspiring new age wonderment you might expect, but a painful physical violation which takes a considerable toll on everyone involved (particularly the person being scanned). It's mental rape with startling physical side effects -- a brand of fictional telepathy which is more biological than spiritual. I'd expect nothing less from Mr. Cronenberg.
The tale is arguably at its strongest during the first half-hour or so, which not only boasts the infamous head-splode sequence but also highlights the riveting performances of Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. McGoohan's steely charisma goes a long way towards making the endless exposition the film has to offer fairly riveting, and he details the true nature of scanning with such ominous authority that it never sounds even a little bit silly. Ironside is even better in his villainous part, doing most of his acting with silent sneers and cutting glares. He commands the screen every time he appears -- the movie begins operating on another level when he's around (not often enough, I'm sorry to report).
However, things begin to sag during the midsection, as both McGoohan and Ironside are taken offstage for a while to make way for the film's true leads: Stephen Lack and Jennifer O'Neill (Rio Lobo). O'Neill is at least a passable actress, but Lack has less charisma than any other lead actor in a Cronenberg movie. His clunky, wooden performance is curious given Cronenberg's gift for bringing the best out in his actors. I suppose that Vale is supposed to feel strange and otherworldly to some extent, but even that doesn't quite excuse Lack's clear inability to deliver a convincing line reading. His miscasting becomes particularly apparent during the film's final reel, as Ironside waltzes in and basically acts his co-star right off the screen. Even so, that climax is a doozy -- a long conversation/special effects showcase which heavily foreshadows the masterful conclusion of Cronenberg's A History of Violence. For every groan-worthy moment Scanners offers, there's another so cool that you become all-too-eager to forgive the film its faults.
Scanners (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection offers a fantastic 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which benefits from superb clarity. In fact, detail is so strong that the special effects will undoubtedly look a bit faker than ever (especially during that closing scene), but that isn't something which really detracts from the viewing experience. Colors are fairly vibrant, too, and flesh tones look warm and natural. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track gets the job done nicely, and Howard Shore's score does a rather fine job of fusing the sort of synth material so frequently used during the era with some complex orchestral stuff. Supplements are generous and compelling. The biggest addition is Stereo, Cronenberg's 65-minute feature made during his college years. It's essentially an experimental student film (with all of the awkward performances and technical imperfections that implies), but it offers an intriguing early look at some of Cronenberg's early obsessions. You also get new interviews with Michael Ironside and Stephen Lack, a meaty featurette on the film's special effects ("The Scanners Way"), an archival interview with Cronenberg from 1981, a trailer, some radio ads, a DVD copy and a booklet featuring an essay by Kim Newman. I wish Cronenberg had been available for a new interview or a commentary, but one takes what one can get.
Scanners may be one of Cronenberg's most iconic films, but it isn't one of his best. Even so, it's a nifty slice of genre fun. Criterion's Blu-ray release is terrific -- here's hoping we'll be seeing them release more Cronenberg flicks in the near future.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Radio Spots
* DVD Copy