Scanners are social outcasts, unable to quell the voices in their heads and it’s this “loss of self” that is explored in what can be described as Cronenberg’s Mental Illness trilogy: Stereo, Scanners and Spider.
Not surprisingly, a sinister corporation with ties to a secret arms manufacturer is exploiting these beings.
That corporation is called ConSec and they’re going after one of their powerful rogue agents, Revok, the only way they know how: enlisting the help of another scanner, Cameron.
But Cameron doesn’t come willingly.
ConSec’s lead researcher Dr. Paul Ruth kidnaps, then injects him with a telepathy inhibitor, Ephemerol, a Haldol analogue that ameliorates his harrowing cascade of voices and gets the scanner subject on board with the plot to take out the company renegade.
“How can you develop a self with all those voices?” is a question asked first of the telepathists in Stereo then continued here, as Cameron infiltrates the scanner underground to find Revok, who, like the test subjects in Stereo, has attempted to self-medicate via frontal lobotomy, the results of which leaves a small scar between the eyes.
A common complaint made by those suffering mental illness is, “I’m not myself,” and questions about the self is one that’s plagued philosophers since antiquity.
Reductionists like Sam Harris say the self is illusory, a wholly subjective experience that’s not as it seems, echoing what David Hume said…basically that since no impression is a persistent thing, there cannot be a persistent self. This is ratcheted up 1,000-fold when the beings are experiencing hundreds of impressions simultaneously and that much more intensely.
Like Videodrome, Scanners touches on the concept of how “two nervous systems connect, separated by space.” In the former, Max Renn’s physical body eventually morphs into a digital cyborg after trying to track down a media oracle who already exists in this state.
In Scanners, the title “freaks” put their connecting powers to the test against volunteers at ConSec headquarters. First, it’s in the form of an audience member who it turns out has similar scanning powers and is responsible for the film’s most infamous and audacious scene, produced “with a shotgun and Kosher salt.” (Definitely watch the mini-doc about how Scanners’ exemplary special effects were done).
Second, Scanner abilities are tested against a yogi in a battle of, well, heart versus head. The yogi has the ability to lower his heart rate at will, but Cameron’s though waves induce tachycardia in a terrifying scene.
Finally, Cameron is tasked to battle a supercomputer to match mental wits with the ultimate expression of human ingenuity. After all, human thoughts, and by extension, “the self” is nothing but higher order cognitive functioning and electrical impulses at the end of the day, if you’re in the business of soul-denying materialism.*
One of the most ambitious horror films of all time, Scanners is a bona fide classic, which has too many subtextual issues to delve into fully here. However, as other reviewers have pointed out, what detracts from the overall story is the detached, procedural aspect of the film, which Cronenberg doesn’t handle as adeptly as he does the film’s awesome central conceit and explosive body horror. It could be summed up thusly: more dying, less spying.
**** (out of 5)
[As Aquinas famously put it, “For those with faith, no evidence is necessary; for those without it, no evidence will suffice.”]
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