Follow TV Tropes


Film / Scanners

Go To

You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [Dramatic Pause] 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 (which, be honest, is the reason you know about this movie).

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 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, 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.
  • Anti-Hero: In the thought-provoking sense, rather than the Lovable Rogue sense. Sure, Cameron is a stone cold badass 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 badass, but not the sort of badass you would ever daydream about being. This makes sense, as the character was a downright Villain Protagonist in the original script. 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: 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.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: The scanner terrorists' leader is one of the most powerful scanners around. This is because both him and the hero were the first products of Ephemerol.
  • Badass Longcoat: Cameron Vale. A few of the ConSec guards also sport some cool trenchcoats.
  • 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.
  • Big Bad: Darryl Revok is the leader of the scanner underground movement and is plotting to take over all of society, and ultimately has to be stopped by Cameron.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Broken Pedestal: The Ripe Program brings out some rather bad memories for Dr. Ruth right before Keller kills him. When Revok later reveals to Cameron that Ruth is their father, Vale rejects them both.
  • Cain and Abel: The evil scanner and good scanner, Darryl Revok and Cameron Vale, are revealed at the end to actually be long-lost brothers, who then proceed to psychically battle each other to death.
  • 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 accent. There's plenty of French signage visible in the background, and the ConSec helicopter has a Canadian registration.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Creepy Monotone: Vale. Holy shit, Vale.
  • Death by Disfigurement: Subverted. It really seems like Cameron is done for after Revok inflicts massive and bloody trauma on his body in the climax and even sets him on fire, but he manages to pull off a Grand Theft Me on Revok, letting him die in his decaying body.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: The Hero (Cameron Vale) deconstructs The Chosen One: he's the only "Scanner" with the power to stop Daryl Revok, he's an absolute Psychic badass ...and he is completely devoid of personality beyond his mission to stop Revok, which he has been raised to do by an (unknown to him) Evil Mentor.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 — though Revok's eyes are now Vale's blue.
  • 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.
  • 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 a splodey 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 apparent effect 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. 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.
  • Mind Rape: Repeatedly happens. The movie starts with the hero accidentally doing this to somebody.
    • In the original screenplay, where he would be more of a Villain Protagonist, it wasn't going to be quite so accidental.
  • The Mole: Braedon Keller is working with Revok from within ConSec.
  • 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'
  • 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.
  • 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 and emotionally stunted because of his psychic affliction, while Kim seems to be coping a lot better with her own powers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Playing Gertrude: Patrick McGoohan's character, Dr. Ruth was said to have founded a biochemical company in 1942. That would make him somewhat older than McGoohan who was only about 13 or 14 at that time. This is somewhat tempered, though, by McGoohan looking and sounding older than he was at this point in his career (possibly attributed to his reputed alchoholism, he did not age well after his mid-late forties).
  • 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 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.
  • Puberty Superpower: Averted altogether. Quite creepily.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Smug Super: Darryl Revok is genuinely evil, and thinks that his psychic powers mean he should Take Over the World. However, he does have a significant Freudian Excuse and has largely become what he is because of his abusive father—Dr. Paul Ruth.
  • 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 accusation very well.
    Revok: No, I'm not like him. LIKE REVOK! DARRYL REVOK!
  • Super Supremacist: The bad guy, Darryl Revok, is a terrorist cult leader and the result of a Bizarre Baby Boom that produced telepathic children known as 'scanners'. His own plot is to reproduce this previous accident by design, then train the next generation to be his foot soldiers on the path to creating a worldwide scanner supremacy.
  • 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.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Dr. Paul Ruth presents himself as some sort of benevolent mentor figure who wants to teach Cameron how to harness his psychic abilities for the betterment of his kind, when in fact Ruth is actually a Mad Scientist and Abusive Parent who is simply using Cameron to eliminate an outside threat to his employers.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 Is Something He's Got 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 office with some interesting modern art, where he is seen drinking Scotch toward the end.
  • Wise Old Folk Facade: Dr. Paul Ruth uses the "benevolent old grandfather" look to his advantage. Cameron trusts him implicitly and tries to infiltrate Revok's organization on his orders, but Ruth's actual motive is to weaponize his younger son against his older one, both of whom are psychic in the first place because of him.
  • 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 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; 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 full of animal parts 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...note 

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


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 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / YourHeadASplode

Media sources:

Main / YourHeadASplode