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Now that I’ve seen David Cronenberg’s major films and a good chunk of his minor ones, I feel mostly qualified to discuss his particular brand of weirdness and how much I enjoy it. All of David Cronenberg’s films include some element of body horror, and Scanners is no exception. But these days, the term “body horror” often gets conflated with torture porn, and while the two genres do overlap, Scanners is a good reminder that you can have one without the other.
Scanners is set in the near future, which is very much like the late ’70s except for the existence of a sub-species of humans called scanners, people who can read and control the neural processes of others. Cronenberg’s approach to telepathy is endearingly scientific: scanners can read and alter any bodily function controlled by the nervous system, not just the conscious thought processes taking place in the brain’s frontal lobe. Our hero, Cameron (Stephen Lack), gets arrested after accidentally scanning a woman in a shopping mall and triggering a seizure. He’s promptly scooped up by a kindly old scientist named Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who apprises him of his abilities and recruits him to locate and kill a rogue scanner named Revok (Michael Ironside), who is hellbent on creating a scanner underground and taking over the world.
Cameron is extremely powerful, as he memorably demonstrates by blowing up an entire computer network over the telephone line using only his brainwaves, but he’s far from invincible. Many of David Cronenberg’s heroes are refreshingly vulnerable. Their journey rarely involves any sort of redemption at the end, let alone any chance for the hero to prove he’s the best and most manly man available for the love interest to get it on with. Instead, Cronenberg’s heroes are on a quest for knowledge at all costs, even if it comes too late to save anyone. Whether that bleak outlook works for you as a viewer depends on your temperament; personally, I’ve always felt more traumatized by films that sold me an unrealistically sunny outlook on the world, so there’s something strangely comforting about a director who insists on giving you the straight story.
It’s also interesting to compare Scanners to the other futuristic dystopias being portrayed in films from around the same time. Terminator was released three years later and is firmly technophobic, with its army of sentient cyborgs bent on wiping out humanity—it’s the story of what happens when humanity finally creates something so technologically advanced that it becomes self-sustaining. Late in the second act of Scanners, we discover that developments in medical technology are the root cause of this strange new superpower, but human nature is ultimately both the hero and the villain of this film.
The bleak ending aside, I also appreciate Scanners’ sense of wonder about the natural world and about the human body. Cronenberg’s version of body horror is more about what the body can do than what can be done to it. There’s something inherently humanistic about the idea that our brains, with a few modifications, could be capable of astonishing feats, both mental and physical. Scanners is optimistic about human power but pessimistic about what we’ll use it for.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.