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Film: Scanners

Scanning is not mind-reading. It is the merging of two nervous systems, separated by space.
Dr. Paul Ruth

A drifter is arrested at a train station for, somehow, putting a woman into convulsions.

A conference attendee evades arrest for blowing up the speaker's head.

The drifter, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), is delivered into the custody of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame), who informs him that he is a scanner. A scanner is a person born with a derangement of their brain, giving them telepathy. They can 'scan' you. Unfortunately, this telepathy is very much of the Blessed with Suck variety: most scanners can hear your thoughts, and can't block them out. They get Psychic Nosebleeds. They can alter your bodily functions. A particularly powerful one, like Big Bad Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) can blow up your head.

Revok is a psychotic scanner-supremacist who wants to Take Over the World (reportedly, some of the later characterization for Magneto was based on him), and, with his terrorist sect of scanners, probably could. Now the question remains: Is Vale a badder dude than Revok?

Scanners is David Cronenberg's 1981 sci-fi thriller outing, full of the standard Cronenberg trademarks: brilliant special effects, a great Howard Shore score, constant unease, the battle between mind and body, and of course, generous helpings of Body Horror. By his own account (see Cronenberg on Cronenberg), the movie was a nightmare to work on however: due to the oddities of the Canadian film industry at the time he only had a few weeks of pre-production before he had to start shooting without a finished script. His daily schedule consisted of waking up early in the morning to write a few pages, and then film that for the rest of the day, all of it completely out of order. It's quite a miracle that the resulting story holds together as well as it does.

The movie was followed by a number of Direct-to-Video continuations: two sequels and two spin-offs. None of these involved Cronenberg or anyone else involved in the production of the first film, or follow on from its story (other than a passing reference in the second).


The first film provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The film is inspired by a few paragraphs of the book Naked Lunch (which Cronenberg went on to adapt into its own film), detailing a group of telepaths called 'senders', one of the many factions of Interzone.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: A rare example where the lack of communication is mostly the fault of the minority: scanners are mostly very socially maladjusted, if not outright diabolical.
  • Anti-Hero: In the thought-provoking sense, rather than the Lovable Rogue sense. Sure, Cameron is a stone cold Bad Ass who can put his enemies into cardiac arrest without lifting a finger, but due to being Blessed with Suck, he's also just generally stone cold. He has no outside interests, no real motivation of his own, and not a whole lot of personality, being described by Kim as "barely even human." During his downtime, he simply sits in his hotel room, stares at the wall, and waits for the next plot point to happen. So yes, he's a Bad Ass, but not the sort of Bad Ass you would ever daydream about being. See What Could Have Been on the Trivia tab for how Cronenberg had originally intended to play this trope. This motif of the protagonist-as-a-pawn was one that Cronenberg later returned to in Videodrome, where the manipulation is a good deal more explicitly sinister.
  • Appeal to Force: Breadon Keller orders a ConSec technician to do a blank swipe of the ConSec computer system in an attempt to hurt Cameron while he's mentally connected to it through the telephone system. The technician refuses to do so because that would wipe out all stored computer files, something he couldn't do without the written authorization of the ConSec leadership. Keller's response is to shove a gun in the guy's face.
    Mister, this is your authorization.
  • Authority Equals Ass Kicking: The scanner terrorists' leader is one of the most powerful scanners around.
  • Badass Longcoat: Cameron Vale.
  • Berserk Button: Revok becomes absolutely livid when Vale tells him that he's no different from Ruth. Revok utterly despises the father who abandoned both his sons and threw Revok in a mental asylum.
  • Big Bad: Darryl Revok.
  • Bio Punk
  • Bizarre Baby Boom: The plot is about a wave o' babies (not literally) with Body Horror-tastic psychic powers. Revok, one of the children of the original boom, is plotting to start a second one, and then create an army of evil scanners and Take Over the World. And he probably could do it. Maybe he does. Cronenberg says that the sequels aren't considered canon.
  • Blessed with Suck: It's no fun being a Scanner, mostly because of all that Power Incontinence. Also, hearing the thoughts of everyone around you gets noisy and distracting.
  • Billing Displacement: Top-billed Jennifer O'Neill doesn't appear until the 37 minute mark and is more of a supporting character to Stephen Lack's character. Michael Ironside is billed fifth despite arguably playing the most memorable character of the film.
  • Body Horror: It's a David Cronenberg film; what did you expect? Specifically, the final face-off between Revok and Vale.
  • Brain Bleach: Revok tried to drill a hole in his skull to let the voices out. This is referenced in X-Men 2 when Col. Stryker explains how his wife was telepathically Driven to Suicide.
  • Broken Pedestal: The Ripe Program brings out some rather bad memories for Dr. Ruth right before Keller kills him.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: "That was Daddy."
  • Canada, Eh?: Pierce lives in a cabin in the woods, and Revok and Keller can be seen meeting at what is clearly the Yorkdale subway station in Toronto. You can see the sign and everything. Both Cronenberg and Michael Ironside are Torontonians, and Stephen Lack has a quite pronounced Canadian accent. The ConSec helicopter also has a Canadian registration.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Dr. Paul Ruth is largely responsible for turning Revok into an evil scanner in the first place. He inadvertently gave his children psychic powers by experimenting on his own family with untested drugs, and subsequently abandoned both his children. Ruth let Revok be locked up in an insane asylum rather than help him, which caused Revok to develop a supremacist complex and a desire to see scanners rule the world. The plot starts as Ruth tries to use Cameron, the other child he rejected, as a weapon against Revok.
  • Creepy Monotone: Vale. Holy shit, Vale.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Analyzes and subverts many of the tropes relating to the classic Hero's Journey, including Mentors, the Love Interest, and the Big Bad being a former student of the mentor.
  • Disastrous Demonstration: The famous exploding-head scene takes place at what was supposed to be ConSec's official debut of its scanner program before representatives of other intelligence agencies.
  • Driven to Suicide: Revok forces Security One to shoot himself.
  • Duel to the Death: A Body Horror version of this happens at the end of the film and a pretty awesome one, too. "Awesome" in both the slang and literal senses of the word. This would not be the last time a supernatural duel was fought with mind powers while the music of Howard Shore played.
  • Dull Surprise: Cameron has no personality whatever, which makes Stephen Lack's performance easily mistaken for simple bad acting. His acting performances normally have a somewhat wider range of emotion to them.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Revok's famous opening scene.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: Justified, kind of. If Revok can blow up people's heads, Vale can blow up computers.
  • Eye Scream: Exploding eyeballs.
  • Fantastic Racism: Revok seem to have developed a hatred for normal humans due to his experiences, seeing scanners as inherently superior to them.
  • Fetus Terrible: A major clue in unraveling the mystery.
  • The Generation Gap: One reviewer has noted that the movie is a fairly good examination of the post-World War 2 generational conflict: Obrist representing the hippies, Revok representing the yuppies, and Ruth the "Greatest Generation" (especially as he is Revok and Vale's father). The ending is particularly interesting; Revok kills Vale, but in the process Vale is able to imprint his consciousness onto Revok, the combined entity inheriting their father's company and power - resulting in a weirdly-prescient portrayal of the internet generation; prewar power and yuppie greed tempered by hippie communalism.
  • Grand Theft Me: In a heroic example, Revok destroys Vale's body in their final mind-duel, but Vale usurps Revok's nervous system outright and claims his opponent's body for his own.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Revok's cult of telepathic madmen vs. a sketchy weapons manufacturer run by crotchety old men and their creepy, maladjusted top enforcer
  • Guinea Pig Family: Dr. Ruth's great crime.
  • Heroic BSOD / Villainous BSOD: Some kinda BSOD, anyway, is suffered by Dr. Ruth. Which type depends on how ready you are to forgive him.
  • The Hero's Journey: Deliberately set up by Dr. Ruth. The whole movie is a very uncomfortable take on this plot structure.
  • Hypocrite: For all that he claims to hate humans, Revok is personally responsible for the deaths of every scanner in the entire film- without exception - either murdering them outright or else sending them to murder other scanners and getting them killed by Vale. This ultimately includes himself. Incidentally, that guy at the beginning of the movie with the asplodey head? Yep, that was also a scanner. One could be forgiven for thinking Revok was actually a human supremacist out to murder all scanners, because that's pretty much all that he accomplishes.
  • Left Hanging: Vale and Revok merge into a single being (though not in a Body Horror sense), but there's still some ambiguity about which consciousness is more in control. Grand Theft Me of Revok by Vale would be the nicer possibility, although the novelization implies that Vale is indeed in control.
  • Mad Artist: Inverted by Benjamin Pierce, whose art keeps him sane. Well, sane-ish. Although his art is pretty friggin' weird.
  • Magic Antidote: Ephemerol, which temporarily shuts down a scanner's powers but has no effect whatsoever on normal humans. Except that when used on pregnant women, it mutates their unborn children into scanners.
  • Master of Illusion: Obrist briefly causes a security guard to collapse in tears by appearing to be his mother.
  • Master of Your Domain: Dieter Tautz, a yoga master, is said to be capable of controlling his heart rate and several other usually uncontrollable body functions.
  • Mega Corp.: ConSec, a rare sympathetic, if somewhat morally dubious, example. They fill much the same role in the story as The Kingdom would in standard fantasy.
  • Mind Rape: Repeatedly happens. The movie starts with the hero accidentally doing this to somebody.
  • The Mole: Braedon Keller.
  • Mystical White Hair: Kim Obrist is a scanner with prematurely grey hair.
  • The Name Is Bond, James Bond: "Revok! Darryl Revok!"
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Darryl Revok. Probably deliberate. After all, he likely chose the name himself. To a lesser extent, naming the mysterious antihero 'Vale'.
  • Not So Different: Early in the film, Dr. Ruth says that scanners have a potential to bring "a brilliance and a glory" to the world. Toward the end, Revok asks Cameron to help him create a "an empire so brilliant, so glorious, it'll be the envy of the world."
    Cameron: You sound just like him.
  • Present Day: Unusually for a film about super-psychics, this doesn't take place in the future (although the original script treatment Telepathy 2000 did, as you might have guessed from the title). Of course, this film's Present Day is the early '80s.
  • Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Revok makes one ConSec agent crash his car into a wall (where it promptly explodes) and another shoot two allies and then himself.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: The Trope Maker, in fact. It's used throughout all the subsequent movies.
  • Psychic Powers
  • Psycho Serum: Ephemerol is originally introduced as a scanner suppressant. It's later revealed that Dr. Ruth originally developed it as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, and that unborn children who are exposed to it become scanners.
  • Puberty Superpower: Averted altogether. Quite creepily.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Mr. Trevelyan, chairman of the ConSec board, seems to be a fairly responsible guy, giving Dr. Ruth a reasonable amount of leeway to deal with the Revok menace.
  • Reclusive Artist: invoked Benjamin Pierce is an artist who lives alone in a secluded barn to make his artwork. As a psychic pariah he outright refuses to see his public.
  • Red Right Hand: Revok's scar. Notably, it's gone after Cameron switches bodies with him.
  • The Reveal: At the end, Revok reveals that both he and Vale are the sons of Dr. Ruth.
  • Scars Are Forever: Revok has a scar on his forehead from a past attempt to let "the voices" out of his head. Subverted at the end, when the scar's disappearance offers visible proof that Cameron has ousted Revok from his own brain and taken up occupancy.
  • Self-Made Orphan:
    • Benjamin Pierce tried to kill his family in his backstory.
    • Revok also orders Keller to kill Ruth.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: Dr. Ruth is relaxing in a comfy leather chair in such an establishment when Vale calls him over the phone to report back to him.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: When Vale is disconnected from the computer, both the computer and the gas station from where Vale hacked into it. Of course, that's not the only thing that blows up.
  • Take Over the World: Revok plans to do this by initiating a country-wide scheme of covertly prescribing pregnant women with a dangerous drug that will turn their unborn children into scanners, who he will then convert to his cause - being one himself with a deep hatred for normal humans.
  • Technopath: Vale psychically hacks a computer.
  • Telepathy: Pretty much the core point of the plot.
  • Token Romance: Averted. Nothing romantic ever develops between Vale and Obrist. It's doubtful whether Vale has the capacity to love.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Revok's greatest fear.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: Invoked - Pierce's art at first looks like this, but if you know he's a scanner, it all makes sense.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Both Revok and Ruth seem to believe this. Dr. Ruth wants to create some sort of peaceful co-existence of humans and scanners where the latter's unique gifts are explored for the good of mankind. Revok wants to create nothing but a scanner supremacy ruled by his 'superior' kind.
  • Villainous Valor: Revok plots a daring infiltration of and escape from the ConSec headquarters to assassinate their last scanner. As the head of a major scanner underground he could have sent in underlings, but he decided this was something he had to do himself. Also, toward the end of the movie, it's The Hero who pulls the Not So Different card instead of the villain.
  • We Can Rule Together: Revok offers this to Vale so they can rule their new empire as brothers. He seems to feel genuinely hurt and betrayed when the offer is refused.
  • Wicked Cultured: A moderate example. Revok has a nice, tasteful apartment with some interesting modern art, where he is seen drinking Scotch toward the end.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: As we learn more of Darryl Revok's backstory, it becomes increasingly apparent that he became a psychic supremacist with ambitions of world conquest due to all the abuse he suffered because of his supernatural abilities. He tranformed his inferiority complex into a superiority complex to cope with being called a freak and locked up in a mental asylum for years, as pointed out by Dr. Paul Ruth:
    Dr. Ruth: At the age of 22 he was extremely self-destructive; now at the age of 35 he is simply destructive.
  • Your Head A Splode: One of the most infamous examples; a particularly bitchin' Kick the Dog moment for villain Darryl Revok. Made even more awesome when you know how they did it: nothing fancy at all — just a fake head and a twelve gauge shotgun aimed at the back of its neck! So now you know exactly what happens to a human head when hit point blank by a sawed-off shotgun...

    Here's a gif. Warning: it's messy. And here's a gif of it in reverse!


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alternative title(s): Scanners
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