Written & Directed by David Cronenberg
Over the last year, I have begun to go deeper with David Cronenberg’s work with Videodrome and The Fly. In previous years I’d seen films like Dead Ringers and Existenz. I’d also viewed some of his more recent movies like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Maps to the Stars. Cronenberg is one hell of a complex director to pin down. His early work is undoubtedly of the science fiction/horror genres, particularly pioneering body horror on film. More recently, he’s focused much more on the psychological elements of his stories forgoing the visceral & gory bits. Scanners is very much of that early period in his filmmaking days, interested in the evolution of humanity in the face of a more uncertain modern world where technology was digging in its talons.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a vagrant whose memories are spotty, and life seems to be an obstacle he cannot overcome. His mind is flooded with the voices of other people’s thinking to the point it can overwhelm him, and if he isn’t careful, he can kill them. Vale is brought in by Doctor Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a researcher for ConSec, a global security company. He explains that Vale is a Scanner, people with an extraordinary ability to reach into the nervous systems of others, read their thoughts, and even manipulate their biology. Ruth has documented over 200 Scanners, but they seem to have gone underground. Ruth fears they have joined Darryl Revok (Michael Ironsides), a Scanner who openly seeks domination over humanity. Vale becomes a secret agent for Ruth, traveling into the Scanner underground. But there is so much Vale doesn’t know about who he is or where Scanners come from.
The first thing I have to point out is that Stephen Lack is one of the most uncharismatic leading men I’ve seen in a film in a long time. I read that he is also a screenwriter & artist, and maybe those are his stronger suits. However, performing is certainly not one of them. Some of his line deliveries are painfully stiff, and he just cannot believably deliver emotion. However, the rest of the cast are much better in their roles, particularly Patrick McGoohan. I haven’t seen much of his work beyond The Prisoner and Braveheart, but I particularly loved him in the former. McGoohan plays Dr. Ruth with just enough eccentricity, so he doesn’t become a caricature, but you can feel that something is off the further we get into the movie.
Despite Lack’s lack of charisma, the story is highly engaging. Cronenberg has a strong eye for shooting locations so that every scene looks interesting. He finds places in Canada that are, of course, unfamiliar to American audiences and evoke a sense of strangeness. The shopping mall that serves as the opening location has an interesting design to it, and the ConSec headquarters is brimming with cold, corporate industrial design. Like Videodrome, Cronenberg presents a world that is industrial and decaying, alluding to a breakdown of society. In his world, places are either visually complex and overstimulating or cold & distant.
Cronenberg’s use of place reflects the psychology of his characters. They are experiencing an evolutionary change on a psychological and physical level. This means they are disoriented, unable to feel safe anywhere. Threats no longer need to be in your physical presence to harm you. Scanners can control other people from a distance and kill you. In Videodrome, your very television can invade your mind and place you in a dangerous situation. Ultimately, Cronenberg shows us this is a freeing experience. Because the laws of physics don’t apply to these new beings, they are free to explore the world in the ways they choose. Vale ultimately transcends his new body and gains the ability to take other forms.
This final action underlines why Revok is the antagonist. Despite thinking he is above “normal” people, Revok is still obsessed with acting like a king and ruling over subjects. His desires are the same as any wannabe dictator and the same as the very institutions he claims to want to spend. Lack succeeds in that he realizes that his body is unimportant as a Scanners; his actual form is free-floating consciousness. Revok likes to murder Scanners because he sees the physical as the ultimate form and all his power does is allow him to manipulate bodies. He’s shortsighted and hasn’t yet clicked into seeing the potential for Scanners. Food, shelter, and physical well-being become obsolete needs when your mind can go anywhere and do anything.