Scanners is a 1981 science-fiction horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan. The film postulates a society in which certain individuals possess telepathic powers, and explores the potential dark side—for both the individuals and the society—of such a situation.
Scanners are people with the ability to read ("scan") other people's thoughts (telepathy), and the power to cause things to happen simply by thinking about them (telekinesis). As such, they are feared and ostracized by the general public, and most scanners keep their talents secret. ConSec, a purveyor of weaponry and security systems and the proverbial "evil corporation", searches out and captures scanners, ostensibly to protect the public from them, but actually to use them for its own nefarious purposes.
Most scanners are unhappy people, condemned to "hearing" an unstoppable flood of strangers' thoughts and living in constant fear of discovery by militant citizens, vigilantes, or ConSec agents. Cameron Vale (Lack) has uncommonly powerful scanning abilities but cannot handle the pressure and has withdrawn completely from society. A homeless derelict, he lives in a shopping mall and survives by telepathically inducing food court customers to give him food. When he psychically overhears two women denigrating him he inadvertently induces violent convulsions in one, which in turn attracts the attention of ConSec agents who tranquilize and abduct him.
Meanwhile ConSec is holding a press conference, attempting to convince the public that their roundup of scanners is a good thing for everyone involved; the public is protected and the scanners become useful members of society. Dr. Paul Ruth (McGoohan), head of ConSec's Scanner Section, introduces the company's senior scanner (Louis Del Grande), who offers to "scan" a volunteer to demonstrate the banality of the process. Unfortunately his volunteer, Darryl Revok (Ironside) is a renegade with formidable telepathic powers who has declared war on ConSec and all scanners who voluntarily work for it. The demonstration does not go well; the ConSec scanner's head explodes in spectacular fashion. Consec security agents try to detain Revok but he escapes, killing several of them in the process.
Ruth meets with ConSec's newly hired head of security, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), to mull Ruth's two biggest challenges: hunting down Revok and infiltrating the secretive scanner community. Ruth thinks both problems can be solved simultaneously using Vale, who might be the only scanner with sufficient psychic power to challenge Revok. Vale is reluctant; Revok's whereabouts are unknown, and the only lead is Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman), an artist and unstable scanner who tried to kill his family as a child. And even if he can find Revok, how will he subdue him? Ruth tells Vale about a secret drug, ephemerol, which ConSec uses to suppress scanners' telepathic powers, thereby maintaining control over them.
Vale tracks down Pierce after locating a gallery exhibiting his morbid sculptures. Pierce is in hiding from Revok; he has rejected Revok's offer to join his renegade faction, which makes him a liability. Four of Revok's men gun down Pierce. Vale flings the four assassins into unconsciousness, then scans the dying man's mind to learn what he knows about the scanner underground.
Pierce's dying thoughts lead Vale to Kim Obrist (O'Neill) who has formed a telepathic alliance with a group of other scanners. Vail is invited to a meeting, but the gathering is ambushed by more of Revok's assassins, who kill Obrist's scanner friends before Vale and Obrist can kill them.
Vale learns that a large quantity of "bootleg" ephemerol is about to be delivered to Revok's clandestine organization. Vale and Obrist travel to ConSec headquarters to inform Ruth of this development; but Keller, who is actually a traitor working for Revok, kills Ruth, then attempts to capture Vale and Obrist, who escape by scanning the ConSec guards. Vale infiltrates Revok's computer network through a payphone. When Keller discovers this, he orders ConSec computer scientists to rig the computer to self-destruct while Vale is plugged into it. The plan backfires and the laboratory explodes, killing Keller.
Vale and Obrist pursue their only remaining lead: the illegal ephemerol shipment. Their investigation takes them to the office of Dr. Frane, an obstetrician, where Obrist becomes aware that someone is scanning her—but who? To her horror, she realizes that she is being scanned by the unborn baby of a pregnant woman in Frane's waiting room. Before the two can question Frane they are ambushed by Revok's men, tranquilized, and abducted.
Vale regains consciousness in Revok's office and learns the rest of the story: Vale and Revok are brothers—the sons of Ruth, who had experimented with ephemerol on their pregnant mother. In fact, all scanners are the children of women who were given ephemerol during pregnancy. Revok's plan is to conquer the world with an army of scanners created by administering ephemerol to thousands of unwitting pregnant women. He invites Vale to join him in his world conquest. Vale refuses. In that case, says Revok, "I'm gonna have to suck your brain dry." An intense psychic battle ensues; Vale holds his own for awhile, but Revok has the overall advantage. At the last possible moment before defeat, Vale, gazing intently at Revok, sets himself afire. The scene suddenly cuts to black as Revok screams.
Obrist awakens to find Vale's incinerated corpse on the floor; but she senses Vale's thoughts and calls out to him. In a corner, hidden under Vale's jacket, is Revok—but with Vale's blue eyes, and without Revok's trademark forehead scar. He smiles at Obrist. "We've won," he says—but the voice is Vale's.
The story is structured as a futuristic thriller, involving industrial espionage and intrigue, car chases, conspiracies, and shoot-outs (including a gruesome scanner duel between Vale and Revok at the end). It was the nearest thing to a conventional science fiction thriller Cronenberg had made up to that point, lacking the sexual content of Shivers, Rabid, or The Brood; it was also his most profitable film until The Fly six years later.
Because of the oddities of Canada's film financing structures at the time, it was necessary to begin shooting with only two weeks' pre-production work, before the screenplay had been completed, with Cronenberg writing the script between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. each morning throughout shooting. Since the production design team had no time to build sets, in some instances the crew had to drive around looking for things to shoot. As a result, Cronenberg has said, Scanners was a nightmare to make.
Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Sweet Home) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect, which was created by filling a prosthetic head with raw beef livers and shooting it from behind with a shotgun.
Scanners was released in the United States on January 14, 1981 by Embassy Pictures, and grossed $14,225,876 at the box office.
Scanners maintains a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, with positive reviews from Chicago Reader, the Austin Chronicle, and TV Guide.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave Scanners two out of four stars and wrote, "Scanners is so lockstep that we are basically reduced to watching the special effects, which are good but curiously abstract, because we don't much care about the people they're happening around". In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Had Mr. Cronenberg settled simply for horror, as John Carpenter did in his classic Halloween (though not in his not-so-classic The Fog), Scanners might have been a Grand Guignol treat. Instead he insists on turning the film into a mystery, and mystery demands eventual explanations that, when they come in Scanners, underline the movie's essential foolishness".
Although Scanners was not nominated for any major awards, it did receive some recognition. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films gave the film its Saturn Award in 1981 for "Best International Film", and, in addition, the "Best Make-Up" award went to Dick Smith in a tie with Altered States. The film had also been nominated for "Best Special Effects."
Scanners also won "Best International Fantasy Film" from Fantasporto in 1983, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1982, but did not win any.
Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2011 has not been put into production. None of these projects has involved Cronenberg as director.
In February 2007, Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV) was announced to direct a remake of the film, to be released by The Weinstein Company and Dimension Films. David S. Goyer was assigned to script the film. The movie was planned for an October 17, 2008 release, but the date came and went without further announcements, and all the parties involved have since moved on to other projects.
In July 2011 it was announced that Dimension Films was planning to adapt the franchise as a television series.