Saturday, July 30, 2016

Scanners


   As a huge fan of director David Cronenberg's movies, Scanners is one of the few that I'd only seen once and then never again. Well, I was dead set to change that, snatching the movie up on Criterion Blu Ray not too long ago, and it was a damn good purchase. The movie is much livelier than I remember, and that's a good thing. It would clearly go on to inspire such genre mainstays like The Terminator, X-Men and The Matrix. Yet not nearly enough people cite Scanners as a 'great' of the 80's, or even of it's genre. When it is brought up, people immediately say, "Yeah! The one with exploding head!" and that's the beginning and end of their fascination with the movie, which is unfortunate because Scanners has so much more to offer.

   It's a very matter-of-fact movie, visually. There's no fancy transitions or cartooned-in effects like The Prize at the end of Highlander, but it's every bit the sci-fi flick that any of the others are. It presents the concept of telepathy in a sleek packaged bundle called 'scanning'. "It isn't just reading minds..." a character explains, it's a meeting of two separate nervous systems across space. The main character, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a vagabond who doesn't know what kind of power he has. He's eventually found by one Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who trains him to hone his powers and eventually recruits him to his cause to dismantling a dangerous underground of scanners who would have bloody revolution given the chance.

   Sound familiar? This isn't unlike Professor Xavier and Wolverine or Morpheus and Neo. But where those movies are content to leave that teacher/student dynamic untouched and move on, Scanners treats it far more integrally than most. But what's any good superhero story without a supervillain? If one cared to watch Scanners as a grotesque and dark 80's comic book flick, it would be no issue at all to see Michael Ironside's Daryyl Revok as a pitch perfect supervillain. He's sinister, driven, and far more powerful than any of the other scanners in the movie, yet he doesn't see himself as the bad guy. Again, I'm sure this sounds familiar... but no superhero movie has ever had a villain with the on-screen presence of Revok. (-and isn't his name just great?)

   Perhaps that's because Scanners isn't bound by the PG-13 restrictions of it's latter day ilk. Revok kills mercilessly, and to very graphic ends. Cronenberg went for broke on this one, packing it full of cerebral concepts and visceral action scenes. There's a handful of gutsy shootouts, a car chase, and lots of 'scanning' action. He doesn't shy away from blood and guts here, putting Scanners in league with genre fare like The Terminator and RoboCop. Again, it's a very plain-looking movie, so it doesn't have the visual flair that most sci-fi of the 80's did. Scanners feels much more like Cronenberg's earlier work, like Shivvers or Crimes of the Future. So, basically, it has a very dry 70's sci-fi vibe to it.

   When the movie does have visually unique things in it, they stick in your head- becoming highlights of the movie. At one point, Cameron has to track down a reclusive Scanner who's chosen to lose himself in his art. He finds him in his studio, where there's also a massive fabricated... head. Just, a huge head in the middle of the studio, which they actually sit inside of and talk. Not long after their talk, the whole set is host to a bloody action scene. So while Scanners might not have 80's lightning shooting out of anyone's eyes, the soundtrack isn't full of catchy pop themes, and there's no steel robots lumbering around, it fashions it's own unique feel out of much humbler materials.

   While I do love this movie, and find it very entertaining, it's dry aesthetic doesn't suck me in. It doesn't have the vibe some of his later movies would, and compared to those, Scanners feels very much like a middle child. Worse yet, Stephen Lack is positively plastic in his performance as Cameron Vale. He has his moments, but they definitely aren't when he's delivering dialog. He delivers all his lines super flat, like he's reading them off of a teleprompter a hundred feet away. He's not a total loss as the lead, but there were much more engaging actors in Hollywood at the time. One wonders what someone like Michael Biehn or even Videodrome's star, James Woods, could've done with the role.

   Nevertheless, I reiterate that Scanners is incredibly underappreciated and is full of interesting concepts that were way ahead of their time. The comparisons to X-Men and The Matrix go well beyond what I described, but I urge you to check the movie out for yourself seeing as how it's basically a crazy superhero/comic book movie... by way of Cronenberg. Yeah. It's a lean little sci-fi thriller but the nearly patented formula for the Hollywood comic book movie is here. The hero is taken in by a wise and older mentor who trains him and pits him against a larger than life villain. The movie climaxes with a special effects laden showdown, serving as a flashy and imaginative showcase of sci-fi powers and movie magic.

   Am I wrong? I could make more specific comparisons but I don't wanna spoil the movie for you by doing so. This comic book thrill ride is anything but formulaic though, back then and especially now. It's a grim and gory little curio with lots of fantastic practical effects, and more conventionally satisfying action scenes than you might expect from a Cronenberg flick. It's the low key, minimalist, bloody, cerebral, and no-frills comic book origin story that you never knew you wanted. Scanners is definitely an odd one out from his oeuvre, but it's well worth the watch, or even a re-watch if it's been a while. Genre fans and lovers of midnight cinema should devour this one all over again.

3 comments:

  1. Regarding Stephen Lack's performance, there was a time when I gave him the benefit of the doubt and rationalized his performance as "childlike" or maybe "shell shocked." I was wrong, of course. He gave a terrible performance and, what's worse, is that I'd read that Cronenberg had him re-dub all his lines with Cronenberg right there directing him through the whole thing and it _still_ sucks ass.

    Makes ya wonder how the guy got hired on in the first place.

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    1. *Lack's performance sucked, not the movie. Scanners is great stuff.

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    2. His performance was pretty shaky. I wonder if Cronenberg owed someone a favor or something.

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