I hadn’t seen “Scanners” in many years when I received my review copy of this Criterion release, so I was curious how well it holds up today in a world full of science-fiction and fantasy films dominated by heavy use of CGI and slick cinematography. As the closing credits rolled, I felt that it still holds up rather well, even if it’s not as polished as Cronenberg’s next effort, “Videodrome.”
The ideas that “Scanners” explores are what keep it relevant today. It wouldn’t be hard to update the story for a modern world full of smartphones and interconnected computers — in fact, there are places in the story where Cronenberg seems to sense where technology will head, such as when protagonist Cameron Vale is able to tap into a computer and wreak havoc over a phone line. When “Scanners” was released in 1981, the concept of connecting to a computer over a phone line was still something foreign to most people, who couldn’t even afford PCs in their homes yet.
There’s also the idea of mucking with genetics and creating people capable of superhuman feats — while that may have seemed a pure fantasy back then, today it’s something we can easily imagine waiting for the next generation to experience. As Vale, who is a scanner capable of incredible telepathic powers, gets pulled deeper into a shadowy world of corporate conspiracies and secret societies, it’s not far-fetched to think such a thing could happen someday. Or even that it could be in its early stages today.
The ending of “Scanners,” in which Vale confronts his nemesis, rogue scanner leader Darryl Revok, and learns family secrets, doesn’t quite hold up — it’s one of those climaxes after which you wonder if “The End?” will pop up on the screen (if you haven’t seen the film, no, it doesn’t). Like the rest of the movie, it’s close but doesn’t quite click, and when you watch the bonus features, you’ll understand why: Cronenberg was extensively reworking the script even when shooting started.
As those interviewed in the bonus features note, such an approach usually results in disaster, but Cronenberg had enough skill to not only avoid that fate but also produce a pretty good movie that did very well at the box office and spawned four sequels. The cracks still show a little in the story, but overall the film holds its own.
Criterion has released “Scanners” in a three-disc package, with the movie and all the extra stuff on one Blu-ray or two DVDs. You’ll also find a booklet with an essay by film critic Kim Newman in this set. The bonus features include:
- “The ‘Scanners’ Way,” which explores the special effects in new interviews with many who worked on the movie (Cronenberg did not participate in any new interviews). Yes, the infamous exploding head scene is addressed in quite a bit of detail, along with the various effects created for the final battle between Revok and Vale.
- “Mental Saboteur,” a new interview with Michael Ironside (Revok), who discusses his extensive career and talks about a love of science-fiction that was passed on from his grandfather, who was friendly with such luminaries as Frank Herbert.
- “The Ephemeral Diaries,” a foreign 2012 interview with Stephen Lack (Vale), who says he returned to his bohemian artist ways after making the film.
- A 1981 interview with Cronenberg from Canadian TV. It pretty much covers the basics; you won’t find anything terribly exciting here.
- A newly restored copy of “Stereo,” Cronenberg’s 1969 debut film that explores many of the same themes as “Scanners.”