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Film / Scanners

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"I would like to scan all of you in this room, one at a time."

"You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? The answer's simple. You're a scanner, which you don't realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power."
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), 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 a 1981 sci-fi thriller written and directed by David Cronenberg, full of the standard Cronenberg trademarks: brilliant special effects, a great Howard Shore score, constant unease, thematic focus on 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, and the film wound up being his breakout hit.

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 provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: The reveal about Dr. Paul Ruth's past changes him into one: not only did he experiment on his pregnant wife, turning both his sons into maladjusted psychics, he then abandoned both of them and when one of them later becomes a problem, he arranges for the other son to kill his brother.
  • 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.
  • Appeal to Force: When psychic Cameron Vale infiltrates ConSec's computer system through the telephone system, Revok's mole within ConSec orders a computer technician to wipe their whole system in an attempt to hurt Cameron. The technician initially refuses to do so because that kind of data loss can only be authorized by the company's board of directors. The mole's response is to shove a gun in the guy's face.
    Mister, this is your authorization.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Revok threatens Vale with "I'm gonna suck your brain dry. Everything you are is gonna become me." That kind of does happen, but not in the way Revok likely intended.
  • 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.
  • Blank White Eyes: After that scene, this is perhaps the film's most famous scene. Vale uses the scanner power on Revok too much, and Revok's eyes turn blank white (as seen here). This scene is also illustrated in both the original movie poster and the Criterion Collection's DVD cover art.
  • Big "NO!": Cameron loudly rejects Revok's offer to build an empire together with a Big "No!" after Revok has murdered so many scanners, punctuated by hitting him in the face with a desk ornament.
  • Bio-Augmentation: The telepaths or 'scanners' in this film are the product of a drug that accidentally mutated hundreds of unborn children, allowing them to link their nervous system to other people. This mutation only works on embryos; the drug has no noticeable effect on adult humans who aren't scanners.
  • 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 accent. There's plenty of French signage visible in the background, and the ConSec helicopter has a Canadian registration.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: Only 2 of the main cast remain alive by the end of the movie.
  • Corporate Conspiracy: Biocarbon Amalgamate, a pharmaceutical company producing Ephemerol that is actually under the control of Darryl Revok, carrying out his plan to create a race of psychic supermen by prescribing Ephemerol to pregnant women, causing psychic mutations in the fetuses.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The ending credits are displayed as part of a computer program, with green text scrolling upwards. This was rather novel in 1981, and computer programs play a vital part into the film's psychic world domination conspiracy plot. (A later Cronenberg film, The Fly (1986), has a bit of a call back to this by having its end credit scroll use the same teal-colored font as the telepod-controlling computer in the film.)
  • Creepy Child: In the OB-GYN's waiting room, an unborn fetus "scans" Kim. Despite the fact Kim isn't expecting it, the fetus appears to be more powerful than Kim is.
  • 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Revok's famous opening scene.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: Justified using the in-universe explanation for how scanner abilities work. If Revok can blow up people's heads, Vale can blow up computers because both people and computers are essentially just neural networks.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep" / No Name Given: Keller's predecessor as ConSec's chief of internal security is only identified by his codename: "Security One."
  • Eye Scream: Exploding eyeballs. Made more excruciating in its detail, but mildly softened due to Cameron no longer needing the eyes, as his personality entered and erased Darryl's, meaning he's in Darryl's brain now using Darryl's eyes.
  • 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.
  • Gangland Drive-By: As Cameron and a group of friendly "scanners" attempt to flee from Revok's hitmen in a van, they are attacked by another van filled with more gun-toting hitmen. The good guys' driver is killed in the process, causing them to crash into a record store.
  • 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.
  • The Good 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.
  • 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
  • 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 sometimes share their minds to completely experience the others' minds.
  • Intoxicated Superpower Snag: A mild tranquilizer known as Ephemerol is the one thing that can temporarily disable a Scanner's Psychic Powers. As such, Cameron Vale uses it to blot out the voices that torment him, while ConSec makes sure to keep some on hand in case unfriendly Scanners come knocking. It's eventually revealed that Ephemerol's effects aren't just due to its nature as a tranquilizer: it's actually responsible for the Bizarre Baby Boom that created Scanners in the first place.
  • The Infiltration: Cameron Vale poses as one of Darryl Revok's scientists to infiltrate his chemical company. While there, he discovers Revok's 'Ripe Program', a master plan to create a new army of scanners by bribing physicians to prescribe Ephemerol to their pregnant patients.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: After shutting down the computer, a technician says, "See, no fireworks." Immediately a console blows up in his face.
  • Kill and Replace: Vale succeeds in defeating Revok by possessing his body during their scanner duel.
  • Left Hanging: Vale and Revok merge into a single being (though not in a Body Horror sense), but it's pretty unclear what will happen next.
  • Little "No": Cameron near-whispers "no" when Revok tells Cameron that he's Revok's kid brother.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Cameron Vale and Darryl Revok. Revok is trying to get Cameron to join him, but when the reunion comes, they kill each other with Psychic Powers. Probably.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Darryl Revok, the villain, reveals that he and Cameron Vale, the hero, are the sons of Dr. Paul Ruth, the Broken Pedestal mentor.
  • Magic Antidote: Ephemerol, which temporarily shuts down a scanner's powers but has no apparent effect on normal humans. Except that when used on pregnant women, it mutates their unborn children into scanners.
  • 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. However, Cameron's biokinetic powers prove too much even for him to control.
  • Mega-Corp: ConSec, a rare sympathetic, if somewhat morally dubious, example. They fill much the same role in the story as The Good Kingdom would in standard fantasy.
  • Musical Spoiler: To introduce the presence of enemy scanners in multiple scenes, the music begins to play high buzzing noises getting louder.
  • Mystical White Hair: Both Kim Obrist and Cameron Vale are scanners with a shock of gray hair at their hairlines.
  • 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."
  • Neutrality Backlash: A Mega-Corp trying to weaponize telepaths known as 'scanners' finds itself at war with a murderous scanner called Revok trying to build a scanner army of his own. There is also a faction of "good" scanners who have decided to remain neutral in this conflict. Problem is, Revok is a Super Supremacist who will murder any scanner who isn't willing to join him. Consequently, most of the "good" scanners are massacred by Revok's hitmen.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The film was shot in 1980 and released the following year, but based on statements within the filmnote , it actually takes place in 1983.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: 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.
  • Patricide: Revok orders Keller to kill Ruth if he discovers their plot, who is later revealed to be Revok's father and responsible for Revok's turn towards evil.
  • Power Nullifier: Dr. Ruth invented a serum that blocks the constant mind-reading of a scanner. This immediately makes Cameron side with 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 Glimpse of Death: Kim Obrist takes Cameron Vale to meet her friends, a group of fellow scanners. In the safety of their hideout, they establish a Psychic Link among multiple people, something they describe as frightening but thrilling. Unfortunately, they are not as safe as they think: Revok sends Mooks to pursue Vale, and they gun down most of the scanners while their consciousness is linked. Obrist screams in horror, and her pain sets off a telekinetic Angst Nuke that knocks out several gunmen. Only she and Vale make it out alive.
    Kim Obrist: Now I know how it feels to die.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: The Trope Maker, in fact. It's used throughout all the subsequent movies.
  • Psychic Powers: While psychic powers tend to be portrayed as a supernatural phenomenon in most media, being a scanner is presented as a medical condition. The scanners came about as a result of pregnant women taking an experimental drug, which then altered the brain chemistry of their babies. The plausible, clinical explanation makes Vale and Revok's fantastical abilities feel that much more believable.
  • 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.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: REVOK! DARRYL! REVOK!
  • Putting on the Reich: ConSec's security guards wear all-black uniforms with shiny knee-high black leather jackboots and peaked military style officer's caps, and more than a handful also sport black Badass Longcoats. Heck, the ConSec emblem is essentially one point away from resembling a Swastika.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: The scanner terrorists' leader is one of the most powerful scanners around. This is because both he and the hero were the first products of Ephemerol.
  • The Reveal: At the end, Revok reveals that both he and Vale are the sons of Dr. Ruth.
  • 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. Other members are seen reading the newspaper and playing chess in the background.
  • Staying Alive: Cameron Vale, losing his blood and organs against a vein-ridden Darryl Revok, is not expected to be the victor of their fight, until Kim finds his voice, in Darryl's body, telling her they've "won."
  • Stronger with Age: Vale and Revok are said to be the two strongest scanners because they are the oldest. This is because they were the first two fetuses that Dr. Ruth experimented on with Ephemerol.
  • 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.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Revok doesn't take Vale's "Not So Different" Remark very well.
    Revok: No, I'm not like him. LIKE REVOK! DARRYL REVOK!
  • 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.
  • Title by Year: This film, released in 1981, had a Working Title of Telepathy 2000, reflecting its setting of 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • Tranquillizer Dart: The two ConSec agents who hunt down Vale in the opening shoot him with a tranquilizer dart. Revok does the same to Vale and Kim near the end of the film.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Revok's greatest fear. His own brother comparing Revok's dream of a scanner supremacy to Ruth's dream of a scanner utopia is a massive source of irritation for Revok, who utterly despises his father and what he put him through.
  • 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.
  • Villains Blend in Better: Vale lives as a derelict on the fringes of society because he cannot control his powers and conceal the fact that he's a scanner. He can seemingly conceal himself from other people's perception to some degree, or at least use mind control to make them ignore him, allowing him to do things like swipe their french fries, but generally leads a miserable existence. Compare this to Revok, who has supreme control over his powers and (except for a rough adolescence that saw him institutionalized) not only passes as an ordinary human without any difficulty (enough to fool even other scanners) but is also a wealthy businessman in charge of a huge pharmaceutical company.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Revok finally loses his cool at the end when Cameron negatively compares him to their father and refuses his offer of We Can Rule Together, deciding to "do things the scanner way" (read: lots of Body Horror) instead of trying to convince him.
  • 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.
  • 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 transformed 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.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Darryl Revok reveals himself to be Cameron Vale's older brother, then tells him that one of them was born in 1943, the other in 1948. Earlier in the film both characters are stated to be thirty-five years old by Dr. Ruth. Either their birth dates are incorrect or one of their ages is (or Ruth is lying).
  • Your Head A-Splode: One of the most infamous examples. According to Word of God, they used a fake head full of animal parts and shot it with a twelve gauge shotgun aimed at the back of its neck.note 


Video Example(s):


Scanners - Mind = Blown

When a ConSec scanner gets volunteer scanner Darryl Revok to join him for a mind scan, the latter overwhelms the former's brain and makes his head explode instead.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (27 votes)

Example of:

Main / YourHeadASplode

Media sources: