Scanners Trilogy Review
When Scanners was first released, it seemed disappointing. Although clearly an extension of many themes which were beginning to be called ‘Cronenbergian’, its emphasis on conventional thrills and suspense seemed to be a backward step from the brilliant intellectual voyage of The Brood. A quarter of a century later, it’s easier to look at the film, Cronenberg’s first big hit, and see that it manages to combine the ideas characteristic to the director’s work with some very well realised action set-pieces. It also helps that Scanners is so much better than most of the Science Fiction thrillers which have seen the light of day in recent years.
Scanners is an extraordinarily proficient piece of filmmaking considering the circumstances in which it was made. This pulpy SF tale of ‘scanners’ – people with abilities which are similar to ESP but much more powerful – who are being manipulated into a war against each other by sinister government forces should have been a breeze for a director who had just come out of a difficult divorce and a painfully personal film like The Brood. But it was rushed into production by Filmplan International and there was only two weeks before principal shooting began. Despite the generous $4 million budget, Cronenberg says he had nothing to shoot and had to resort to scenes on the expressway which resulted in two deaths. After this, nothing went right. Patrick McGoohan couldn’t learn his lines and had severe stage fright, largely brought on by drinking and self-loathing (the one feeding the other) and leading lady Jennifer O’Neill was distressed to learn of the violence in the film – it transpired that the producers had sent her a script with all the gory bits cut out. That the film came out at all is surprising, let alone that it came out as good as it is. The nine months post-production seems to have helped a lot, enabling Cronenberg to shoot extra scenes and, with the help of Ronald Sanders, get the editing just right.
There are, it has to be said, some severe flaws in the film. The major one is Stephen Lack in the pivotal hero role of Cameron Vale, a scanner who hasn’t yet learned how to hone his powers.
Although he’d made a name for himself in the Canadian underground cinema movement, Lack is quite simply a very poor actor. Cronenberg has said on many occasions that he cast Lack for the intensity of his eyes but the problem is that there’s nothing going on beneath them. When you look at him, you immediately notice the potency of the gaze but the moment you hear him talk in that slightly robotic fashion, the effect vanishes because you can’t connect the look to the man. Nor is Jennifer O’Neill particularly impressive as Kim Obrist, Cameron Vale’s eventual girlfriend. She’s not a bad actress in the same way that Lack is a bad actor but she tends to read her lines for every cheap dramatic effect she can get and she doesn’t relate well to the rest of the cast.
Both problems are exacerbated by the excellence of some of the other performances. The very dependable Lawrence Dane is good fun as the slimy villain. Patrick McGoohan, hooked on booze and self-pity at the time, is entirely believable as the unfortunately named Dr Ruth (an inadvertent slip on a par with calling Judy Geeson “Thatcher” in Brannigan). McGoohan brings a solid, avuncular centre to the film and manages to bring credibility to some of the more outré concepts and plot points. Best of all, the film gives prominence to the great Michael Ironside as the renegade scanner Darryl Revok. This was Ironside’s first important role and it defined the rest of his career, one which saw him playing virtually every kind of sleazo imaginable. There is something about this which seems unfortunate when you look at how good he is in wearily heroic roles such as Rasczak in Starship Troopers but Ironside seems to enjoy his reputation and it’s certainly kept him in steady work. In the final battle between him and Lack, it’s hard not to root for Ironside; not only because he’s a much better actor but because he seems to have so much fun being bad you can’t quite bring yourself to condemn him.
As usual, Cronenberg loads the film with ideas, including old favourites like the absentee scientist, but he also overloads it and this makes the implications of the plot more interesting than what actually happens. This is a common problem for the director, one which he sometimes tries to solve by abandoning conventional narrative all together and turning the film into a kind of fetishist wonder wall, as in the last third of Videodrome. The middle hour largely consists of a chase during which Cameron Vale meets Kim Obrist and seems a little bit redundant. Cronenberg can do the action stuff well enough – as he proved in his car racing movie Fast Company - but no better than directors of considerably lesser talent and its hard not to feel that he’s wasting his considerable gifts on stunt sequences. The real excitement in this set-up – for hardened Cronenberg-heads at any rate – comes during the exposition provided at some length by McGoohan and ingenious bits like the ‘archive film’ featuring Darryl Revok as a teenage hoodlum who has drilled into his skull to “let out the voices”. When the director is riffing on cerebral concepts there are few other filmmakers in his class and he can be imaginative as hell – the explanation of the origins of the ‘scanner’, the idea of Vale tapping into a computer via the phone system and the scene which establishes the way a scanner perceives the world around him through the echoing of multiple voices while Vale writhes in agony. Give physical shape to an intellectual concept and Cronenberg is in his element. We saw this throughout The Brood and it’s here in the scenes with Benjamin Pierce and his incredible sculptures.
This director who is so often accused of being cold seems to empathise with human pain on an intensely emotional level.
The climactic battle between Revok and Vale – who are, in a nod of the hat to Biblical mythology, essentially Cain and Abel and another example of Cronenberg’s own rage about familial cruelty and the neglect of children by their parent(s) – is a highpoint of the film and of Cronenberg’s entire career. With the help of Dick Smith, he brings completely convincing life to a battle which removes the schism between mind and body – an anti-Cartesian argument which runs through much of the Canadian’s work. This sequence, all pumping bladders and exploding arteries, is marvellous stuff on both a conceptual level and as a superior gross-out. I’m not entirely sure whether the final scene works as well as it should but that’s probably got something to do with our complete lack of interest in Stephen Lack’s performance.
Scanners, whatever its flaws, is a confident and enjoyable film, the work of a director whose life is newly relaxed and settled and who is willing to have fun. Cronenberg is surrounded here by the team who would work with him on Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly and who remain his collaborators, with the exception of DP Mark Irwin. This collection of talent is one of the great artistic team efforts of recent film history and the contribution made to Cronenberg’s work by his regular crew deserves to be recognised, particularly that of production designer Carol Spier. Scanners is also the film which, through its financial success, made Videodrome possible, something for which we should be eternally grateful.
Scanners II: The New Order 4/10
Trying to follow up a David Cronenberg film is a wasted effort. Cronenberg’s ability to devise brilliantly original concepts and then fully explore their implications is just about unparalleled in modern cinema and it’s not a talent which can be easily replicated. The occasional sequels to his films tend to exploit the more commercial areas of his films while neglecting the intellectual excitement which is intrinsic to Cronenberg’s kind of SF-horror. Scanners II: The New Order falls into the same traps as The Fly 2 did, although it’s not quite as dismal as Chris Walas’s film. From scene to scene it’s mildly entertaining and director Christian Duguay – uber-hack though he is– pulls off a few effective set-pieces but the episodic nature of the film and the woefully predictable plotting (which resembles a cross between Robocop and any chase movie you care to mention) ensure that it’s little more than a footnote to the original.
The film is set some time after Scanners. The state has come to realise the potential of scanners but they have problems making them do as they’re told. A drug, EPH-2, keeps them on a short leash but has the unfortunate side-effect of turning them into shambling junkies. Detective Forrester (Ponton), a particularly corrupt member of the police force, is determined to find a ‘virgin mind’, a clean scanner who can be trained as an agent of social control and he discovers one in the shape of David Kellum (Hewlett), a trainee vet. David has been having funny turns and discovers the extent of his power when he, literally, blows the mind of a punk who is trying to kill his girlfriend Alice (Mejias). Initially, he is keen to help Forrester but he soon discovers that his new friend’s ambitions are rather less than selfless.
Considering that most of the intellectual rigour of Cronenberg’s original is absent from this sequel, it’s quite a diverting B-Movie. Christian Duguay, the man who perpetrated The Art of War and the dire Screamers, keeps the film moving along without too many of the clunky plot points hitting the audience on the head. The insoluble problem is that the film progresses through a series of sequences which are almost identical – the hero is chased, tries to escape but ends up in a mind-meld battle with another scanner or the brutal killing of a non-scanner. This leads to a series of bloody deaths which begin to numb the viewer after a while.
In Scanners, the initial exploding head was a delicious shock moment which was only used once as a significant plot point. Duguay uses gore and other shock effects so often – and in rather nastily protracted slow motion – that his paucity of any other ideas becomes increasingly apparent. To be fair, the special effects by Mike Smitherson are rather good.
Mediocre would be the best description for this film. To be honest, I expected very little from it in the first place and I wasn’t surprised to find my expectations fulfilled. The acting is either wooden – Hewlett and Deborah Raffin as his scanner sister – or pure ham – Yvan Ponton’s ranting villain and Raoul Trujillo as a rogue scanner – and the script, while functional, doesn’t so much create characters as shuffle a few stereotypes. The links to the first film are limited and unconvincing – David is meant to be the son of Cameron Vale and Kim Obrist– and that’s idiotic in itself since the timescale of the sequel suggests that only a decade or so has passed. The ending is unintentionally funny – some pumping bladder special effects followed by a plea for tolerance of scanners who are, after all, just like you and me but with weird contact lenses.
The scariest thing in the entire 100 minutes is the soft rock ballad over the end titles. Anchor Bay have thoughtfully provided subtitles for the cretinous lyrics – “Mind to mind to mind and heart to heart to heart” wails the singer in a heart-rending tremolo which suggests he’s just had a scanner do something horrible to his scrotum.
Scanners III: The Takeover 2/10
Scanners II looks like a masterpiece, however, compared to the next movie in what was becoming an unwelcome series. Cronenberg wisely kept well away from the sequels, realising that they simply served to make his original film look even better than it did in 1981. Scanners III: The Takeover, also known as Scanner Force, is a dire film in every respect. It’s also an unconscionably long one, going on and on until even the most indulgent viewer is likely to be begging for mercy.
It begins with a slow crawl bringing the viewer up to speed on what scanners are, although I somehow doubt that many people watching this movie haven't got at least a nodding acquaintance with one of the two previous films. The revelation of the opening credits that Harry Hill appears in the film raised my hopes but sadly it's someone else entirely. Backing up the credits is another cracking soft-rock ballad which has absolutely no relevance to the film whatsoever - I feel honour bound to share some of the lyrics with you. "When somebody needs you like I do, the flames keep within," the singer insists. Sadly, the song fades out before any more is subtitled but I'm sure I could prepare a complete transcription if anyone is willing to pay.
It's Christmas party time. "These guys don't believe in scanning" says a minor character dressed as Santa before Alex (Steve Parrish), our hero, gives them the assembled partygoers a demonstration of his powers.
You see, the scanners have, by this point, developed abilities which seem to spring more from careful viewing of the work of Brian De Palma than from the original film. The telekinetic abilities of the kids in De Palma's Carrie and The Fury now seem to be shared by scanners the world over. This involves the irritating guy dressed as Santa being catapulted out of a window to a messy end on the pavement several stories below. Pleasing as this may be for the audience, it upsets Alex, who goes a-wandering for the next two years. "Even if I was declared not guilty for what they called an accident, I had no choice but to leave" muses Alex. "I had to find a way to master my powers. I went around the world and finally found a place..." Can you guess where? Yes, it's a monastary in Thailand, possibly the same one where David Carradine honed his abilities all those years ago in "Kung-Fu".
But wait, who's that who came to the party with him? It's his sister Helena, played by the rather gorgeous Liliana Komorowska. "I haven't really scanned anyone since I was twelve years old," she says, as if scanning was like playing spin the bottle. Making up for lost time, she soon runs amok, having gone mad from some experimental EPH-3 prescribed by her pharmacist dad. "We don't know, if any, what the side-effects are," says dad, ungrammatically, but he soon finds out. Soon, having demonstrated her ruthlessness by killing a pigeon which had the temerity to crap in her teacup, Helena has taken over her dad's company, done all sorts of un-ladylike things and achieved domination over a television network. Who on earth can stop her?
This is all incredibly daft. The performers struggle with reams of unspeakable dialogue - "When you adopt children, you're always afraid that your hold on them is a little tenuous," worries Dad. "I've lost Alex, I don't want to lose her too." While saying this, the poor sod playing the part is required to stare meaningfully into the middle distance. Christian Duguay's abilities as a director of actors may never have been particularly impressive but he doesn't even try here. Liliana Komorowska does her best and is attractive enough to divert attention from some of her lines. The rest of the cast are either wooden - Alex who can't even sit cross-legged in a convincing way - or wildly over-the-top - Helena's business partner who can't say a single line without popping his eyes and licking his lips in a manner which reminds you of a fourth-rate rep company having a bash at "Richard III". This is presumably Duguay's idea of comic relief but by the time the business partner is dancing and doing an impromptu striptease, the embarrassment quotient has gone way beyond an acceptable level.
The special effects are, once again, pretty good which is fortunate because the action is ludicrous and badly directed.
The Thai kick-boxing martial arts stuff is efficient enough but it seems to belong to a completely different film. The production is reasonably slick and the expensive location shooting does at least make some of the scenes nice to look at. By the time the film is over, you've lost all interest in the characters and Cronenberg's film, flawed as it is, seems like an all-time untouchable classic.
All three films look pretty good in crisp new anamorphic 1.85:1 transfers. Scanners is particularly impressive, particularly in comparison to the Arrow DVD which has been available for a few years. Colours are very strong, there is only minimal artefacting and the print is clean and free of any obvious damage. Detail is pleasing throughout and the only serious flaw is some over-enhancement in places. The two sequels are also quite impressive, although Scanners III seems rather grainier than necessary and fine detail is lacking.
The soundtracks demonstrate the usual Anchor Bay remixing mania. On the positive side, the 2.0 track on Scanners is pretty good and shows few signs of being anything except two channel mono. The DTS 5.1 Surround and DD 5.1 mixes don’t add much to the film except occasionally making it louder. On all three tracks, Howard Shore’s music track comes across beautifully. The other two films sound fine in the 2.0 Stereo mixes which replicate their original presentation. Once again, the two remixes add very little to the films.
In terms of extra material, Scanners is graced by an introduction from Alan Jones, which contains spoilers and is typically insightful and intelligent. Watch to the end for an amusing little surprise. Also present is the 55 minute “The Directors” documentary about Cronenberg which is also, regrettably on Anchor Bay’s new DVD of The Brood. It’s a shame that he couldn’t have been persuaded to do a commentary on the film. We also get a rather good photo gallery, some literate film notes and trailers for all three Scanners films and The Brood.
The main extra on Scanners II and Scanners III is a brief discussion on each film by Alan Jones. He knows more about the films than is probably healthy and manages to find a surprising amount of interesting information to impart – apparently there would have been no sequels without a Swedish video distributor begging Pierre David to make them. He also says some very nice things about Scanners III which makes him just about unique in the annals of film criticism.
I'm delighted to say that Anchor Bay are finally making a consistent effort to add optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing onto their films.
Scanners is a fascinating film and it looks as good here as it ever has done. The two sequels aren't really worth your attention however and, on the whole, the trilogy boxset is an unnecessary extravagance. I suggest getting the single disc release of Cronenberg's original and forgetting that the other two films exist. I'm certainly going to try very hard to do so.