Release Date: January 14th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg Actors: Steven Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Jennifer O’Neill, Michael Ironside, Lawrence Dane
t a mall, a suspicious derelict is chased by armed men, shot with a tranquilizer dart, and taken back to a laboratory. He’s told he’s a “scanner,” an unusually gifted individual capable of hearing other people’s thoughts. The homeless man, Cameron Vale (Steven Lack), doesn’t consider it a gift; floods of jumbled voices invading his mind continually torment him. But a special drug, ephemerol, can hone his clairvoyance. Other, more powerful telepaths can not only read minds, but also control other people’s actions. The international security company ConSec seeks out scanners to research their abilities and possibly weaponize them.
At a ConSec demonstration, a particularly powerful scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) assassinates the conductor, causing pscho-pharmacist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to reveal to his superior, Mr. Trevellyan (Mavor Moore), that an underground scanner organization in North America has recruited the 236 known extrasensory perception exhibitors ConSec identified. It’s uncertain what they intend to do as a group, though they could cause considerable harm – side effects of being scanned include nosebleeds, earaches, upset stomachs, and in extreme cases, exploding heads. Ruth suspects their intention is to destroy ConSec. Vale’s first assignment is to track down eccentric artist Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), who leads him to Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), who can hopefully point him in the direction of Revok.
Like “The Terminator” (which this film predates), there’s a stark seriousness surrounding all of the science-fiction elements. Comic relief never enters the picture, allowing the aspects that aren’t adequately illustrated to be, at least, tonally consistent. Vale becomes an unwitting soldier for saving humanity from his own kind by traitorous governance, while actor Lack does a modest job of assuming the role of a vagrant unable to form a convincingly normal personality. He delivers his lines nearly monotonically, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not his peculiar performance is entirely intentional or a result of mediocre acting. Perhaps his paucity of personableness is what prevents “Scanners” from being unforgettable.
Mechanical, manipulated sound effects and pulsing music (the score is by Howard Shore) drift across the action, while director David Cronenberg crafts a uniquely visual thriller with an amusing twist on telepathy, entailing firestarting, shotgun violence, and bloody mayhem. Cronenberg’s infatuation with gore as representational of the weakness of human flesh is still in its early stages in “Scanners,” before he would further integrate sexual aberrance into his resume of empirically weird features. The problem here is that the pacing is so slow and drawn out that even the scenes with stunts and chills seem to drag. By the time the finale at the Biocarbon Amalgamate facility rolls around, with some over-the-top, imaginative gruesomeness, the overlong, dry exposition has already become overbearing.
– Mike Massie