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 an impressive demonstration of Cronenberg's writing skills 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).
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.
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.
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 Good: Cameron Vale is a seemingly-psychopathic drifter with terrifying psychic powers who talks in a Creepy Monotone and has little-to-no personality or outside interests beyond the main plot. The basic undercurrent of his character is that he's fighting the evil psychics because it's slightly more interesting than staring at the wall.
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.
First-Person Peripheral Narrator: To some extent, Cameron Vale, who has literally no personality, while Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan get much less screen time but are far more memorable and interesting.
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
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.
Hive Mind: Scanners in the first film sometimes share their minds to completely experience the others' minds.
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.
The Kingdom: The Mega Corp. ConSec fills this role, recruiting the heroic drifter Cameron Vale to neutralize the diabolical saboteur who has sworn a vendetta against them. Making them a weapons corporation is part of the film's elaborate plot to make us not really care about the stakes; the movie aims less for mere entertainment and more for making you uncomfortable.
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.
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'.
The Not-Love Interest: There's never a hint of romance between hero Cameron Vale and his ally Kim Obrist, because they're too busy fighting for their lives to fall in love. Also, Cameron is terrifying.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.