Scanners (Criterion Spine # 712) is a Canadian film that was originally released in 1981. It received its Criterion release on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 15, 2014. David Cronenberg has three other films in the collection: Naked Lunch (Spine #220), Videodrome (Spine #248) and one of my personal favorites, Dead Ringers (Spine #21) which is unfortunately out of print. Criterion also released a restored version of The Brood on iTunes and Hulu, suggesting a future DVD and Blu-Ray release (fingers crossed).
Cameron Vale (Steven Lack), a telepath known as a Scanner is recruited by weapons company ConSec to assassinate a rogue Scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Vale’s mission reveals an unsettling truth about ConSec, the Scanners, and his relationship to the powerful Revok.
Cronenberg’s films have always relied on the successful marriage between ideas and special effects. It’s the consistency in the delivery of these two factors that make the first half of Cronenberg’s career my favorite phase of any director. What I’m talking about is Cronenberg’s expression of what we’ve come to regard as body horror. With Scanners the body horror is less overt, less of a result of sexuality and disease and more of an internal nightmare. As a result Scanners is a little more grounded than what we typically think of when we consider Cronenberg’s works.
Cronenberg’s stylistic choices of sparse sets, almost banal cinematography, and over the top gore (that exploding head is still a technical triumph) are all evident. But the film’s plot is a little more traditional and a little more focused on big picture twists and conspiracies and less so on the plight of the individual. The casting of Steven Lack as the lead even suggests that. As far as acting goes, his skills work best in terms of taking the direct actions the script calls for and less so in terms of line delivery or providing an emotional center. Ironside is fantastically mad and malevolent, but there’s no subtlety in his performance – no shades of gray. This may sound like a criticism, but it’s not. The characters, who have little in the way of backgrounds or relationships, work not as people but as ideas. They are reflections of the dangers of real-world corporate and medicinal reliance and what that means for the next generation. So when the incredible, literally eye-popping climax comes, we are situated with the familiar Cronenberg again, witnesses to that marriage of ideas and special effects.
Scanners’ focus on ideas is centered on the future of this fictional world, and so the conflict between Vale and Revok, with ConSec constantly pulling the strings, feels less concerned with the present and more concerned with the post-film aftermath. It’s really quite unique, that even in constructing this large-scale espionage narrative, Cronenberg crafts a film that still only feels like we’re seeing a fragment of this world. As is typical with Cronenberg’s films from this era, there is no denouement, only a shocking and transformative end and the lingering post-credit question of ‘where do they go from here?’ By allowing us some form of comfort in his style, Cronenberg admirably denies his audience narrative comfort.
As someone who owns the original, grainy DVD copy released in 2001, allow me to say that the Criterion 2K digital restoration is simply phenomenal. You really haven’t seen and appreciated Scanners until you’ve seen it in this quality. Being one of Criterion’s most recent releases, it includes a great set of bonuses, including a documentary on the film’s special effects, The Scanners’ Way, interviews with Steven Lack, Michael Ironside, and David Cronenbeg, an essay booklet by Kim Newman, and original trailers and radio spots. The most notable extra is the inclusion of Cronenberg’s first film: Stereo (1969), which you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is truly one of Criterion’s most well put together releases.
While the film doesn’t push the boundaries of concept as much Cronenberg’s later films, and there are some pacing issues, Scanners is still essential viewing. If you’re a fan of Cronenberg or ’70s and ’80s science-fiction, the Criterion release of Scanners is a must own.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A-