Scanners, a 1981 science fiction film crafted by sci-fi/horror master David Cronenberg, tells the story of Cameron Vale (a dry Stephen Lack – he’s not an actor and it shows; he has the right look, but can’t deliver dialogue at all), a man with extrasensory abilities. Despite a weak lead performance, Scanners overall feels of a piece with much of the sci-fi that came out in the 1980s and early ’90s, sci-fi featuring the earliest of modern technology (wow, computers!).
There’s a general aesthetic and style to films from directors like James Cameron, John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, Ridley Scott, that is shared by Cronenberg here; this is very much an early piece of a larger movement. If Cronenberg here is less stylish than Ridley Scott, less campy and satirical than Carpenter and Verhoeven, less filled with action than Cameron, he makes up for it with his technical precision, his dynamic approach to body horror and graphic imagery, his weirdness. A line like ‘My art keeps me sane’ might be on the nose coming from another director it’s not far from it here, but you get the sense that Cronenberg authentically believes the truth of this line.
The music here is the exact kind of electronic, pulsing ’80s score that we’ve become familiar with for this kind of ’80s sci-fi film (see again the comparisons to other ’80s sci-fi directors). This is not a dig in any way, but a reflection of the influence that this film has had, the ways in which it’s been emulated. David Cronenberg helped turn Howard Shore into one of the premier composers working in Hollywood, with a career that came to its pinnacle with the Lord of the Rings trilogy; to see his clearly nascent talents, alongside those of Cronenberg, in earlier films like Scanners, it’s easy to see the two pushing each other to greater and greater heights.
The only actor here likely to be recognized by younger American audiences is Michael Ironside, who plays the villain here, Darryl Revok. Ironside delivers a memorable and rich performance, a template for future roles in more widely recognized films like Total Recall and Starship Troopers. He’s become so well known with his bald head, but even with hair, he’s instantly recognizable here.
Overall I liked Scanners a fair amount but also respect it a lot for its influence; this is a flawed film, but the DNA it shares with future films to come is highly important.