Remember back in the ‘90s when the Sci-Fi Channel existed? Sure, it’s still around - rebranded as Syfy, of course - but I’m talking about the era when you could flick on the channel and discover an episode of Sliders instead of the latest Sharknado travesty. As a kid, the channel was always of interest, and through it I was introduced to a number of movies that took me down different paths of discovery: Seeing Army of Darkness late one night, for instance, served as the gateway drug to The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, and though I would’ve inevitably seen them all the older I got, it was thanks to the Sci-Fi Channel that I had the chance to experience them early on.
That’s not to say that every movie left a mark, though. There are just as many I barely remember as there are ones I’ve undoubtedly completely forgotten about, and one such example of the former whose finer details had slipped away over the years for me was David Cronenberg’s 1981 film Scanners. Put a gun to my head and there would still be no way for me to tell you exactly when I saw it other than the fact I remember seeing it, let alone precisely how the scattered puzzle pieces of memory I had of the film all fit together, which is surprising considering other Cronenberg films I saw growing up - like Videodrome and The Fly - are etched in my memory forever.
This year marked the film’s 35th anniversary, and for the first time in two decades, I decided to revisit it to see if there was a reason why it never clicked for me.
Long story short, now I understand why it didn’t.
Scanners tells the story of a group of telepaths - the titular scanners - and the efforts by a security company known as ConSec to weaponize them. Unfortunately for ConSec, a powerful scanner known as Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is working towards global domination, and the company’s only hope at stopping him rests in the hands and mind of a newly-discovered scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who is tasked with stopping Revok by any means necessary.
On the surface, it’s an incredibly straightforward narrative, one that’s almost comic book-esque in its portrayal of people with special abilities living in a world of good and evil and shadowy agendas. As a product of the early ‘80s, it’s an intriguing concept, but one that ultimately crumbles under the weight of the film’s many crippling issues.
For starters, the hero of the film, Cameron Vale, is easily one of the most boring protagonists to ever lead a film. Lack - ahem - lacks absolutely any charisma, spending much of the film delivering his lines with zero enthusiasm when he’s not wildly making hilariously over-the-top faces at the camera during the act of scanning, the end result being that he gives NyQuil a run for its money as a sleep aid. And sadly, he’s not really helped by the rest of the cast, like Patrick McGoohan’s mentor figure Dr. Ruth, who just seems bored with even being in the film, or Jennifer O’Neill’s obligatory love interest Kim Obrist, a fellow scanner who ends up getting caught up in Cameron’s story seemingly just for the sake of having a female in the proceedings and not much else. The only one who really gives the film his all is Ironside, but he’s in it so little that the character of Revok hardly gets the chance to shine in the way a better film would’ve allowed him to.
It says a lot that the high point of the film is its opening, wherein Revok uses his abilities to blow up the head of one of ConSec’s own scanners during a demonstration - easily the film’s most iconic moment and the one image in the film that truly is unforgettable - gets captured, and then immediately turns the tables on his captors before escaping. It’s gripping, sold almost entirely by Ironside’s indomitable presence, but after it’s over, Revok only turns up here and there up until the final act, leaving Lack’s personality-less Cameron to pick up the slack only to suck the life out of the movie instead.
Another problem the film has is a lack of identity. The film can never quite make up its mind on exactly what it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it science fiction? Is it a mystery-thriller? Is it a live-action comic book? Cronenberg has undoubtedly proven himself to be a master at blending different genres in his other work, so it’s all the more baffling that he struggles to pull it off here, as there’s never a cohesive tone to the film. One minute, Revok is exploding heads and convincing people to kill themselves and it’s efficiently tense; the next, Cameron is making unintentionally hilarious faces at the camera while scanning that thoroughly distract from and undermine otherwise serious moments. Nothing ever quite gels together, and it’s frustrating to watch, as every effective moment is almost immediately cut at the knees by something that’s not.
I can’t stress enough how much the film’s failures fall on how boring its protagonist is. Regardless of its identity crisis, there are still a handful of interesting ideas and visuals crammed into the film - at least in the context of it releasing in 1981 - but none of it can really amount to anything when it’s absolutely impossible to care about your lead character. He has no chemistry with anyone, and when action sequences happen - like a car chase, an ambush, or the final standoff against Revok - there’s no weight to them, because it’s easy to root for Cameron to die simply in the hope we can get back to more Revok. Even important late-game revelations about Cameron and Revok don’t shock like they should; the characters’ first meeting is also their last, and if a film unintentionally leaves its audience rooting for its antagonist during its big climax, then there’s a problem.
Even beyond Lack bringing the film down, something feels inherently off about the film, as if Cronenberg himself was limited by budgetary concerns or, simply, the restraints of the ‘80s. Its grandiose story of telepaths and special powers and world domination feels constantly held back, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. And though I’m typically against remaking films, I feel like Scanners is the type of project that could do well for a modern overhaul, particularly if Cronenberg himself were to be given a second chance at it to truly go wild and dark, the fundamental story of the film allowed to blossom in a way that would be interesting juxtaposed against the types of comic book movies we’re seeing every few months.
Ultimately, I can’t say Scanners is terrible, but it’s not amazing, either. Its biggest crime is simply being boring, and so much of that stems from the fact its own protagonist is a black hole of charisma robbing any and all scenes and narrative twists he’s involved in of any strength while its engaging antagonist is severely underutilized. As a science fiction film and as a horror film, there are much better ways to pass the time - just look at some of Cronenberg’s other work - and I now see why the film never resonated with me in the first place, even though its concept is something that should’ve (and could’ve) worked better. Those who love it will love it, warts and all, and I can’t fault them for that, and for those interested in Cronenberg’s filmography it’s essential viewing. But for everyone else, check it out only if you’re extremely curious.
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