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 seminar 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), 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, 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).
Scanners II: The New Order (1991)
Scanners III: The Takeover (1992)
Scanner Cop (1994)
Scanner Cop II (1995), also known as Scanners: The Showdown.
The Scanners and Scanner Cop movies provide examples of:
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 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 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. Braedon Keller's response is to shove a gun in the guy's face.
Braedon Keller: Mister, this is your authorization.
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 being 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 gave his children psychic powers to begin with by experimenting on his own family with untested drugs, and subsequently abandoned both his children. He let Revok be locked up in an insane asylum rather than help him, causing him to develop a supremacist complex and wanting scanners to rule the world. The plot starts as Ruth tries to use the other child he rejected as a weapon against Revok.
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.
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.
Exact Words: 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."
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.
Mad Artist: Inverted by Benjamin Pierce, whose art keeps him sane. Well, sane-ish. Although his art is pretty friggin' weird. He's also a Reclusive Artist.
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.
Psycho Serum: Ephemerol is originally introduced as a scanner suppressant. We discover later that Dr. Ruth originally developed it as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, and that unborn children who are exposed to it become scanners.
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.
The Cuckoolander Was Right: When Drak informs David of Forrester's bad intentions, David dismisses it with "You're crazy!". Drak points out that while that may be true, it doesn't mean that he's wrong.
Dirty Cop: Commander Forrester. He wants to take power by building an army of scanners to keep everyone else in line, and using those he already has to wring himself into higher positions of authority, by killing the police chief, manipulating the mayor into appointing him as his replacement, and killing her as well when she finds out too much, among other things. His lackey Gelson is one as well.
Fantastic Drug: The second movie introduces a new generation of Ephemerol, but it's highly addictive and debilitating long-term. The terminally addicted scanners look remarkably like a mix between meth addicts and cancer victims.
Evil Laugh: Drak gives one after his rampage at the arcade hall.
Psycho Serum: Ephemerol 2 is highly addictive, and severely debilitating long-term to the scanners. Why they don't just use the earlier version of the drug can best be chalked down to plot convenience.
Psychic Nosebleed: Continuing the convention from the first film. A scanner even lampshades it with a joke. When he scans a corrupt coke lawyer, which causes the guy's nose to bleed, he quips that it's probably due to the cocaine the guy was snorting.
Technopath: Drak is playing an arcade game. Then he does it without his hands. Then he takes control of the entire arcade hall, setting a panic, and blowing it up.
Take Over the City: Commander Forrester advocates the creation of a "New Order" to "cure" the cities of crime, which really means that he'll be in control of everything. He tries to build an army of scanners to keep the rest of society in line, and uses their abilities to get himself into successively higher public offices, going from police commander to police chief and planning to run for mayor next throughout the film.
Taking You with Me: After his plan is definitively foiled, Forrester tries to kill David one last time by grabbing one of the police officer's shotguns. David stops him with his powers.
Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Nobody seems to notice that Gelson's eyes have just turned stark white when he's under David and Julie's mind control.
Incest Subtext: There is a bit present between Helena and Dr. Monet, her adoptive father. After she goes insane, he confronts her while she's nude in a hot tub. She accuses him of adopting her because he just wanted a girl all to himself, and then uses her psychic powers to drown him.
Mind Over Matter: Alex in particular shows off some impressive telekinetic powers.
My God, What Have I Done?: When the drug wears off momentarily, Helena realizes what she's done and is distraught, but takes the drug again. She's also like this just before she commits suicide at the end.
Grand Theft Me: While Zena is dying, Staziak scans her to find out where Karl Glock is hiding, following her into a mental world. She then tries to pull this trope on Staziak by taking over his body and letting him die in hers. He prevents it by scanning her mental projection.
Happily Adopted: Samuel Staziak has a very good bond with his adoptive parents, who took him in after his biological father (a deranged scanner) died. His new father is also his boss at the LAPD. They don't appear in the next film.
Technopath: Sam controls a computer with his mind to speed up the facial composition software.
Ear Ache: At the beginning, Staziak causes a hostage taker's ear to melt off by scanning through his earpiece.
Heroic Suicide: Staziak's real mother kills herself by jumping off a balcony, to prevent Volkin from absorbing her power so he can use it against her son.
Life Energy: Volkin devours the lifeforce of other scanners to add to his own power. Staziak even compares him to a vampire at one point.
Psychic Assisted Suicide: Volkin kills an orderly at the psychiatric institution he escaped from by forcing him to shoot himself, and later directs a police officer to stand in front of an oncoming car.