About a half hour into Scanners, the film starts to run out of its initial steam. Director Cronenberg (who also scripted) opens the film with some dynamic set pieces–lead Stephen Lack mind frying a mean woman, Lack on the run from goons, Patrick McGoohan chaining Lack down and torturing him (apparently), and Michael Ironside blowing up some guy’s head with his mind. Scanners is a lot right off. Oh, and then a car chase action sequence after the head explosion. Again, it’s a lot.
And then it’s time for the first exposition dump. McGoohan is trying to find “good” Scanners, who are telepaths, like Lack. Ironside is trying to find bad ones. Both want them as biological weapons, McGoohan just wants to sell them to humans. Ironside wants to subjugate the humans. Not all that information comes out at the first info dump, mostly just McGoohan bickering with security chief Lawrence Dane. Dane doesn’t trust McGoohan, but Cronenberg wants the viewer to side against Dane. It’s a confusing turn of events at the end, just because McGoohan’s not a sympathetic character and Dane seems square but level-headed.
Then Lack comes in and goes on a secret mission around Canada as a double agent to join Ironside’s group. Previous to this point in his life story, Lack’s character had been homeless. Now he’s a well-dressed Canadian, kind of a maple syrup James Bond. Only he’s not particularly good at the secret agent stuff. Eventually he meets a girl Scanner–Jennifer O’Neill–who he actually treats terribly and roughly, which is a little disconcerting at times because apparently Lack is supposed to be sympathetic and likable. He’s not, of course, because his performance has all the life of a once damp towel. Same for O’Neill. Same for McGoohan. Dane gives the film’s best performance almost by default.
Well, except for Ironside. I mean, Cronenberg front loads the film with action. He saves some effects work for the grand finale, but there’s no action to it. There’s exposition, there’s pointless contrivance. Cronenberg keeps throwing out big revelations to try to get some emotional connection to the characters, but they’re impervious–Ironside should be intellectually sympathetic but Cronenberg can’t swing it. He really does rely on Lack instead and Lack crumbles, time and again.
But until the late second act, Ironside’s a perfectly good thuggish villain. Sure, he’s also a millionaire war profiteer but it’s Canada, it’s just how Canadian millionaire war profiteering Scanners who operate out of desolate office parks operate.
Nice photography from Mark Irwin, some occasionally strong editing from Ronald Sanders. Once O’Neill and Lack have teamed up in their chemistry-free quest for… it’s unclear. Cronenberg has at least two jumbo red herrings in the script just to keep things moving, which might work at ninety minutes but at over a hundred it’s a slog.
Howard Shore’s music is competent, occasionally Hitchcockian, but most often too much. Cronenberg never really gets a sense of the locations in the film and Shore’s music defaults to filling in mood. But it’s not good at filling in mood.
Really, until O’Neill shows up and becomes Lack’s Eva Marie Saint, Scanners can almost get through. Cronenberg’s got Dane, he’s got Ironside. Sure, Lack’s vacant but maybe he’s supposed to be vacant in that poorly acted way. The strange part about the film is how the first act’s well-plotted. Shame the rest of it is either aimless or misguided.
Written and directed by David Cronenberg; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; produced by Claude Hèroux; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.
Starring Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Paul Ruth), Jennifer O’Neill (Kim Obrist), Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok), Lawrence Dane (Braedon Keller), and Robert A. Silverman (Benjamin Pierce).