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Scanning is not mind-reading. It is the merging of two nervous systems, separated by space.—Dr. Paul Ruth
A drifter is arrested at a train station for, somehow, putting a woman into convulsions.
A seminar attendee evades arrest for blowing up the speaker's head.
The drifter, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), is delivered into the custody of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner), who informs him that he is a scanner. A scanner is a person born with a derangement of their brain, giving them Telepathy. They can scan you. Unfortunately, this telepathy is very much of the Blessed with Suck variety: most scanners can hear your thoughts, and can't block them out. They get Psychic Nosebleeds. They can alter your bodily functions. A particularly powerful one, like Big Bad Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) can blow up your head.
Revok is a psychotic scanner-supremacist who wants to Take Over the World (reportedly, some of the later characterization for Magneto was based on him), and, with his terrorist sect of scanners, probably could. Now the question remains: Is Vale a badder dude than Revok?
Scanners is David Cronenberg's 1981 sci-fi thriller outing, full of the standard Cronenberg trademarks: brilliant special effects, constant unease, the battle between mind and body, and of course, generous helpings of Body Horror. By his own account (see Cronenberg on Cronenberg), the movie was a nightmare to work on however: due to the oddities of the Canadian film industry at the time he only had a few weeks of pre-production before he had to start shooting without a finished script. His daily schedule consisted of waking up early in the morning to write a few pages, and then film that for the rest of the day, all of it completely out of order. It's quite a miracle that the resulting story holds together as well as it does.
The movie was followed by a number of Direct to Video continuations: two sequels and two spin-offs. None of these involved Cronenberg or anyone else involved in the production of the first film, or follow on from its story (other than a passing reference in the second). They also steadily declined in quality, settling for B-movie cheese.
- Scanners II: The New Order (1991)
- Scanners III: The Takeover (1992)
- Scanner Cop (1994)
- Scanner Cop II (1995), also known as Scanners: The Showdown.
Scanners provides examples of:
- All of the Other Reindeer: A rare example where the lack of communication is mostly the fault of the minority: scanners are mostly very socially maladjusted, if not outright diabolical.
- All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game": Most people don't know it as Scanners, but as "that one where the guy's head explodes".
- Authority Equals Asskicking: The scanner terrorists' leader is one of the most powerful scanners around.
- Badass Longcoat: Cameron Vale.
- Berserk Button: Don't tell Revok he sounds like Dr. Ruth. Even though Dr. Ruth has one of the coolest voices ever.
- Bio Punk
- Bizarre Baby Boom
- Blessed with Suck
- Billing Displacement: Top-billed Jennifer O'Neill doesn't appear until the 37 minute mark and is more of a supporting character to Stephen Lack's character. Michael Ironside is billed fifth despite arguably being the most memorable character of the film.
- Body Horror: It's a David Cronenberg film, what did you expect? Specifically, the final face-off between Revok and Vale.
- Bond James Bond: ("Revok! Darryl Revok!")
- Brain Bleach: Revok tried to drill a hole in his skull to let the voices out. This is referenced in X-Men 2 when Brian Cox's character explains how his wife was telepathically Driven to Suicide.
- Broken Pedestal: The Ripe Program brings out some rather bad memories for Dr. Ruth right before Keller kills him.
- Calling the Old Man Out: "That was Daddy."
- Canada, Eh?: Pierce lives in a cabin in the woods, and Revok and Keller can be seen meeting at what is clearly the Yorkdale subway station in Toronto. Both Cronenberg and Michael Ironside are Torontonians. The ConSec helicopter also has a Canadian registration.
- Creepy Monotone: Vale. Holy shit, Vale.
- Deconstructor Fleet: Analyzes and subverts many of the tropes relating to the classic Hero's Journey, including The Mentor, the Love Interest, the Big Bad, and even the evil student.
- Duel to the Death: A Body Horror version of this happens at the end of the film and a pretty awesome one, too. "Awesome" in both the slang and literal senses of the word.
- Dull Surprise: Cameron has no personality whatever, which makes Stephen Lack's job easily mistaken for simple bad acting. His acting performances normally have a somewhat wider range of emotion to them.
- Establishing Character Moment: Revok's famous opening scene.
- Explosive Instrumentation: Justified, kind of. If Revok can blow up people's heads, Vale can blow up computers.
- Eye Scream: Exploding eyeballs.
- Fantastic Racism: Revok seem to have developed a hatred for normal humans due to his experiences, seeing scanners as inherently superior to them.
- Fetus Terrible: A major clue in unraveling the mystery.
- Fridge Brilliance: Stephen Lack's apparent lack of acting is because Vale has little if any personality of his own.
- Benjamin Pierce's art becomes less weird when one considers the fact that he is a scanner.
- Guinea Pig Family: Dr. Ruth's great crime.
- Heroic BSOD / Villainous BSOD: Some kinda BSOD, anyway, is suffered by Dr. Ruth. Which type depends on how ready you are to forgive him.
- The Hero's Journey: Deliberately set up by Dr. Ruth.
- Left Hanging: Vale and Revok merge into a single being (though not in a Body Horror sense), but there's still some ambiguity about which consciousness is more in control. Grand Theft Me of Revok by Vale would be the nicer possibility.
- Mad Artist: Inverted by Benjamin Pierce, whose art keeps him sane. Well, sane-ish. Although his art is pretty friggin' weird. He's also a Reclusive Artist.
- Magic Antidote: Ephemerol, which temporarily shuts down a scanner's powers but has no effect whatsoever on normal humans. Except that when used on pregnant women, it mutates their unborn children into scanners.
- Master of Illusion: Obrist briefly causes a security guard to collapse in tears by turning into his mother.
- Master of Your Domain: Dieter Tautz.
- Mega Corp: ConSec, a rare sympathetic example. They fill much the same role in the story as The Kingdom would in standard fantasy.
- Mind Rape
- The Mole: Braedon Keller.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Darryl Revok.
- Present Day: Unusually for a film about super-psychics, this doesn't take place in the future (although the original script treatment Telepathy 2000 did, as you might have guessed from the title). Which is to say, it's set in The Eighties.
- Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Revok makes one ConSec agent crash his car into a wall (where it promptly explodes) and another shoot two allies and then himself.
- Psychic Nosebleed: The Trope Maker, in fact.
- Psychic Powers
- Psycho Serum: Ephemerol is originally introduced as a scanner suppressant. We discover later that Dr. Ruth originally developed it as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, and that unborn children who are exposed to it become scanners.
- Puberty Superpower: Averted altogether. Quite creepily.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Mr. Trevelyan.
- Red Right Hand: Revok's scar.
- The Reveal: At the end, Revok reveals that both he and Vale are the sons of Dr. Ruth.
- Screw the Rules, I Have a Nuke: Breadon Keller orders a ConSec technician to do a blank swipe of the ConSec computer system in an attempt to hurt Cameron while he's mentally connected to it through the telephone system, but he refuses to do so because that would wipe out all stored computer files, something he couldn't do without the written authorization of the ConSec leadership. Braedon Keller's response is to shove a gun in the guy's face.
Braedon Keller: Mister, this is your authorization.
- Self-Made Orphan: Benjamin Pierce tried this.
- Stuff Blowing Up: When Vale is disconnected from the computer, both the computer and the gas station from where Vale hacked into it. Of course, that's not the only thing that blows up.
- Take Over the World: Revok plans to do this by initiating a country-wide scheme of covertly prescribing pregnant women with a dangerous drug that will turn their unborn children into scanners, who he will then convert to his cause - being one himself with a deep hatred for normal humans.
- Technopath: Vale psychically hacks a computer.
- Token Romance: Averted. Nothing romantic ever develops between Vale and Obrist.
- Turn Out Like His Father: Revok's greatest fear.
- True Art Is Incomprehensible: Invoked - Pierce's art at first looks like this, but if you know he's a scanner, it all makes sense.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: Revok seems to believe this.
- We Can Rule Together
- Wicked Cultured: A moderate example. Revok has a nice, tasteful apartment with some interesting modern art, where he is seen drinking Scotch toward the end.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity
- White-Haired Pretty Girl: Kim Obrist is prematurely grey.
- Your Head Asplode: One of the most infamous examples.
The sequels and spin-offs provide examples of:
- Asshole Victim: The store robbers that David kills to save his girlfriend.
- Ate His Gun: The police chief, prompted by Drak.
- Badass in a Nice Suit: Helena's henchman in part three.
- Blown Across the Room: The security guard in the arcade hall, one of the armed robbers, and two of Forrester's henchmen at Morse's lab.
- Cain and Abel: The main hero and villain in Scanners 3 are each other's brother and sister, respectively.
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: When Drak informs David of Forrester's bad intentions, David dismisses it with "You're crazy!". Drak points out that while that may be true, it doesn't mean that he's wrong.
- Dirty Cop: Commander Forrester. He wants to take power by building an army of scanners to keep everyone else in line, and using those he already has to wring himself into higher positions of authority, by killing the police chief, manipulating the mayor into appointing him as his replacement, and killing her as well when she finds out too much, among other things. His lackey Gelson is one as well.
- The Dragon: Peter Drak.
- Dull Surprise: Alex.
- Engineered Public Confession: David forces Forrester to reveal his plans and admit his crimes in front of the press at the end.
- Evil Laugh: Helena at different points, and Drak after his rampage.
- Fantastic Drug: The second movie introduces a new generation of Ephemerol, but it's highly addictive and debilitating long-term. The terminally addicted scanners look remarkably like a mix between meth addicts and cancer victims. The third uses another version to explain how Helena turned evil. Somehow.
- Foe Yay: Drak constantly calling David "pretty boy".
- Follow the Leader: The Scanner Cop series. The two sequels to a lesser extent as well, being only tangentially related to the first.
- Gorn: Heaps of it.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Yep, that's David Hewlett as the lead in Scanners 2. And Lori's father as the corrupt doctor.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Morse is killed with a massive overdose of his own drug.
- Hospital Hottie: One of the villainous scanners in part three.
- If You Kill Him You Will Be Just Like Him: Seems to be the reason why David doesn't kill Forrester at the end, and to make it clear to the public that scanners are not a threat to them.
- Large Ham: Most of the villains: Drak, Helena, Volkin...
- Luke, I Am Your Father: David's (adoptive) parents reveal that he's actually the offspring of Cameron Vale and Kim Obrist, and also has a sister he's never heard of.
- Ms. Fanservice: Helena and Yoyce in the third film.
- My Greatest Failure: Alex accidentally kills his best friend at the start of Scanners 3, going into self-imposed isolation for many years in a Buddhist monastery.
- Perma Stubble: Alex when he returns home.
- Psycho for Hire: Peter Drak. Lampshaded by the other characters.
- Psychic Nosebleed: Continuing the convention from the first film.
- Romance on the Set: Christian Duguay, the director of Scanners II and III, married Liliana Komorowska, who played Helen in the third.
- Sensual Slavs: Helena is apparently meant to be Canadian, but the actress's thick Polish accent comes through a lot.
- Sequel Hook: Helena transforming into some sort of energy creature at the end of the third film (taking a note from Gremlins 2, perhaps?), but it's forgotten in favor of Scanner Cop.
- Shallow Love Interest: Yoyce to Alex in the third. Alice also seems like this to David in the second, but that one at least establishes why she wants to become a vet.
- Drak is playing an arcade game. Then he does it without his hands. Then he takes control of the entire arcade hall, setting a panic, and blowing it up.
- Helena mind controls people straight through cameras and television sets.
- Take Over the World: Most villains' intentions.
- Taking You with Me: After his plan is definitively foiled, Forrester tries to kill David one last time by grabbing one of the police officer's shotguns.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: The second film seems to take place in a near future where many North American cities have become largely overrun with rampant crime and lawlessness, and air pollution is a standard part of the weather report. The third, which as one would assume is set after two, takes place in the present (1992) again.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Nobody seems to notice that Gelson's eyes have just turned stark white when he's under David and Julie's mind control.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Drak's rebuttal to David when he tries to reason with him to use his powers for good.
Power doesn't make you good, David. It just makes you powerful.
- Your Head Asplode: Scanners 2 blatantly tries to copy the head explosion from the first film by having Officer Gelson's head blow up likewise. Scanners 3 does it as well.
- You Killed My Father: Drak murders David's adoptive mother with glee. He gets his in return.