Monday, August 20, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.7: David Cronenberg's Scanners

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 78 (B+)

Scanners features a scene that could serve as a perfect representation of David Cronenberg’s career: an exploding head. It’s an image that’s equally repulsive and exciting, both visceral in its power and fascinating in its implications, an unexpected money shot that also perfectly communicates the stakes of the scene. It’s a dangerous world filled with people with astonishing powers, and this is what they can do. Scanners was Cronenberg’s first major hit, as well as his most commercial film up to that point. It can’t help but feel a bit tame in concept and structure to Shivers, Rabid, and especially The Brood, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a strong film in its own right.

“Scanners” are psychics with both the telepathic ability to read, or “scan”, others’ thoughts and the telekinetic ability to make things happen by thinking about them. ConSec, a weapons group, takes scanners for their own purposes, but a scanner underground led by Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is fighting back violently. Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) of ConSec finds another powerful scanner, the inexperienced Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), and sends him to stop Revok. But Revok has contacts within ConSec, and his methods are ruthless.

Scanners is easily the slickest film Cronenberg had made up to that point (it might still hold that title). It has a pulpier sci-fi concept and filters it through the structure of a spy thriller (it plays a little bit like a reimagining of Brian De Palma’s The Fury). Howard Shore’s score piles on the futuristic atmosphere (occasionally a little too thick). Cronenberg fills the film with shootouts, chases, and other big action beats. But while Scanners may be more conventional than most Cronenberg films, it’s still filtered through a unique sensibility. The director’s use of sound design here is often disorienting, both when he shows how Cameron can’t control how he hears others’ thoughts (an entire room filled with loud voices) and whenever someone scans another person, at which point Cronenberg effectively piles on the white noise. Cronenberg’s distinctly chilly touch is still present, as is his sense of moral ambiguity. There’s a sterile feeling to the ConSec environment, not to mention the fact that McGoohan and company have dubious methods and goals, to say the least. Scanners is an action/sci-fi film without a real hero- Cameron is too confused and lost to know what he’s really doing and not strong enough to keep himself from being controlled.

He’s a little too weak, as a matter of fact. Cronenberg was stressed when making the film- he had to write the script while they were filming- and his stress comes through. The film’s plot machinations are sometimes a little creaky, particularly whenever it has a moment to ostensibly develop the central character. Cameron Vale ultimately isn’t a very compelling hero. It might be more tolerable with a better actor, but Stephen Lack’s last name is apt. He’s a complete blank as an actor, with no real emotive ability and tone-deaf, affectless line readings. Jennifer O’Neil’s ostensible love interest doesn’t fare much better, but at least she isn’t a complete bore the way Lack is.

Cronenberg mostly makes up for it, though, by keeping the pacing quick and the villains fascinating. By this point he had grown more confident as a craftsman, and he builds some pretty phenomenal action sequences (particularly in the gripping climax). More importantly, he managed to nab two fantastic character actors for the supporting cast. Patrick McGoohan is best known for his work as the cold-as-ice protagonist of the trippy “James Bond meets Pink Floyd” spy show The Prisoner, and he brings that coldness to a character whose position as an ally to Cameron always seems a bit uneasy. He’s distant and controlling, and seemingly incapable of caring about anything other than ConSec’s success. Still, it isn’t as if Revok is much better. Michael Ironside similarly specializes in playing ice-cold bastards in films like Total Recall and Starship Troopers, which makes him perfect for this role. Revok symbolizes everything wrong with the scanner movement against ConSec- it would be equally tyrannical.

Cronenberg plays with a number of his pet themes- scientists and authority figures with questionable intentions, men and women manipulated by strong forces, and even a bit of how technology and biology intersect in a sequence where Cameron uses his telepathy to infiltrate the phone network for information. But most of all, Scanners pushes Cronenberg’s pet theme of psychological and personal dysfunction to the forefront. It’s another film filled with characters who often cannot control their own impulses- Cameron scans a woman in an opening scene and causes her to go into convulsions. Even after he gains more control over his powers, he’s confused, lost, and without a clue as to who he is. He’s controlled by a soulless corporation and a creepy and controlling bastard (McGoohan). The scanners are all social misfits that exist to cause psychological confusion among humanity, and Revok is the central figure in that movement.

It all comes down to a dynamite final sequence that’s as heady as it is viscerally powerful. Cameron learns that he and Revok are the first scanners…and that they are brothers, created after their father, Dr. Ruth, gave their pregnant mother doses of an experimental drug. Cameron won’t join Revok, so it’s a telekinetic battle to the death that wreaks havoc on both of their bodies. Cronenberg really goes all out on the body effects here- veins start popping, eyes explode, Cameron’s body catches fire (complete with stigmata flames on his palms). The two have, as Revok intented, melded together. But have “we won”, as Cameron tells Kim from Revok’s body? Is that light voice but an imitation, those soulful eyes a lie? Who is in charge after this transformation, and what does that mean for the future? And what are the implications of that statement for a person whose control over his own fate was dubious, at best? Scanners may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it shows an even greater strength with ambiguous, challenging endings than he had shown in the past, which would prove important on his next film: Videodrome.

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