Thursday, May 31, 2012

Random Movie Report #106: Scanners

Scanners DVD cover and Amazon link

Scanners isn't the best film David Cronenberg has made, or even the most commercially successful, but it's become a cult classic all the same. A lot of this is, let's be honest, down to the scene where a guy's head explodes. It was the sort of big gory shocker that could make a movie's reputation in the splatter era, and it helped to cement Cronenberg's reputation as One to Watch Out For in the new breed of horror filmmakers.

Explosive cranial displacement aside, Scanners is an intense flick. Drawing heavily from the work of writers like Philip K. Dick, A. E. Van Vogt, and Alfred Bester, Cronenberg puts together a slick and thoughtful sci-fi tale which presents the old chestnut of telepathy in a unique and visceral way, and becomes a story about a new culture rebelling against its elders. Though not quite as polished as the filmmaker's  later work, it's a really good example of how to make a technological thriller on a low budget, and ultimately a pretty compelling ride.

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a vagrant plucked from the streets after he gives a woman a heart attack just by looking at her. Officers from a company called ConSec put him under the care of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick MacGoohan), a scientist who reveals to Vale that he is a scanner, someone with the power of telepathy- the ability not just to read minds, but to interface with the nervous systems of others at a distance. A particularly explosive use of this power is displayed by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a rogue scanner and leader of a terrorist underground, when he attacks a ConSec presentation, and the company has Ruth send Vale to eliminate the menace. Along the way, Vale falls in with Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill), a therapist and fellow scanner who is uniting others of their kind in peaceful exploration of their powers, and the two track Revok to a chemical company responsible for manufacturing the drug Ephemerol, which scanners use to shut out the cacophony of other people's thoughts- but the chemical corporation has links to ConSec, who have at least one traitor in their midst.

The film is slow going at first, and it doesn't help that Vale is presented to us as a true blank slate; his head was filled with other people's voices for as long as he can remember, and he never had time to grow his own identity. It's an interesting concept, but Lack's flat delivery and relative lack of emotion can be grating; it's the sort of thing that's hard to pull off, and the script doesn't have a lot of room for character exploration. But as the story grows more complex, it becomes more interesting, and though Revok is a clear villain, there's clearly more going on than just one bad man on the loose.

As above, the film presents telepathy as less of a form of communication as a form of interaction with the body; there's really no clear line between body and brain, and a scanner can throw someone across the room, set them on fire, or just make them kill themselves. Unlike Carrie Weiss, they can't slam doors or crash cars with their mental powers, but Cameron is able to interface with a computer, in a scene that leads to a clever twist on the old "explosive short-circuit" cliche.

A lot of Cronenberg's skill is already on display. His style is not a showy one; the camera doesn't call attention to its placement, but this is good, since we're less conscious of watching a movie and more just seeing events unfold before us. But frequent use of low angles keeps us on edge, and there's a nice semi-futuristic vibe coming from the industrial landscapes of early-80s Toronto and environs. Call it cyberpunk on a shoestring. There's also composer Howard Shore at his minimalistic best, with a poundingly intense main theme that kinda gets into your head after a while. The intensity of the performances by Ironside and MacGoohan also help grant the film an over-the-top sense of reality.

In the end it's possible to read the film as a truly perverse Hero's Journey for Cameron Vale, in which he finds sanity and a kind of identity in a world that basically hates and fears him. (The parallels between Revok and Magneto are probably unintentional, but hard to avoid.) This core probably helps the film through its sillier moments, but it also helps that it's just plain fascinating in the way classic sci-fi literature often is. It's a good idea expanded into a really good story, helped by a strong atmosphere and the director's command of the elements needed for a good thriller. The DVD is a bit rare, having drifted out of print due to MGM owning the rights and being generally unable to release things, but this is a film you should hunt down, and not just because a guy's head blows up in it.

But that totally happens.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg

Grade: A-

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