Boy, this was disappointing. Released only two years before the tight and assured Videodrome, Scanners is nonetheless limp and flabby, a far more embyronic film than might be expected at this point in David Cronenberg’s career. He’d previously made six small features and Scanners was his breakout success, but its frequent monotony would suggest a filmmaker still learning his craft if we didn’t know otherwise.
The difficulties of its production may account for some of these stumbles in execution, particularly given Cronenberg was attempting a science fiction film with elaborate makeup effects on a small budget. Scanners deals with the emergence of individuals with telepathic and telekinetic capabilities. One faction, led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), is gathering scanners for an eventual takeover. To prevent this, ConSec corporation scientist Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) trains a newly discovered scanner, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), to infiltrate Revok’s organisation.
This being a Cronenberg film, those telekinetic skills are inevitably pointed at human bodies, with an exploding head and other pulsating injuries generated quite impressively for the time and budget. The production was reportedly also constrained by idiosyncrasies in Canadian film funding at the time, allowing only two weeks of pre-production and meaning Cronenberg had to write the script each day before shooting. That Scanners holds together so well given such conditions is laudable, but it doesn’t manage to be more than a curiosity.
A key failing is the casting of Lack as Vale. Lack seems like a non-actor, his line delivery usually flat and often at odds with the intensity of the scene. When he does try to emote, he sounds hollow and lifeless. It’s a typical Z-movie performance, especially when he’s in a scene with the effortlessly engaging McGoohan.
With Lack at the centre, the stakes of the story feel trivial. Scenes where Vale has to be cavalier or learns vital information about himself become almost surreal in the absence of the necessary energy. The rest of the cast, including Ironside and Jennifer O’Neill as another scanner opposing Revok, are perfectly capable, so why Lack was allowed to scupper the film is a mystery. (Lack also has a supporting role in Dead Ringers, which I pray he doesn’t undermine too.)
Another way the film drifts into Z-movie territory (I had flashbacks to R.O.T.O.R) is the inexplicable elongation of scenes. With a 103-minute run time, Cronenberg could have tightened the film but for some reason didn’t. A late sequence where a technician has to shut down Consec’s computer server at gunpoint is interminable and kills all suspense. The final act with Lack and O’Neill on the run just lollops along to the conclusion, dropping plot twists as if checking them off a list. The gruesome climactic battle lurches into existence with scant impetus, almost out of obligation. So much of the film feels half-hearted that it’s difficult to care about any of it.
Despite this, the strong impression the film made in 1981 is somewhat understandable. Presenting the visceral consequences of superhuman powers was unusual in science fiction cinema, which usually opted for cleaner impacts like disappearance, sudden death, or characters being thrown across the room. As Alan Moore later did in Watchmen, Cronenberg instead insists that superhuman ability be understood in all its messy implications, just as the wielding of real power is not inherently orderly and dignified. He’s also an early explorer of the desire of corporations to control the lives and everyday functions of ordinary citizens, building on the growing lack of trust in institutions that developed in the 1970s.
These trailblazing qualities may be what earned it a place in the Criterion Collection, because it’s hard to see how the execution did. Time has not been kind. It’s hard to recommend Scanners as anything more than a curio for admirers of Cronenberg and those interested in the development of indie genre cinema.