Skip to main content

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners
(1981)

(SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners, and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

Rather than diseases that “destroy a well-functioning machine” (an atheist-materialist perspective at its core level) they may change that system into something else; rather than a defective machine, it becomes one that “just has a different purpose”. Cronenberg seems genuinely convinced of this, and is fond of extolling the “empathic” position: “I can imagine what it feels like to be a virus” (I guess Cronenberg as a virus is preferable to Prince Philip, at least). Of course, to validate this concept, he must embrace the fallacy that it is “a living creature”: “See the movies from the point of view of the disease. You can see why they would resist attempts to destroy them”. You can observe this (if you must) as a through line from Shivers to The Fly, in particular. But in tandem, gaining in strength, is Cronenberg’s interest in not just the disease, but also the technology behind it. By the time The Fly comes along, the physical mutation of his ’70s movies is specifically attenuated to scientific progress, however in error.

In Scanners, the disease is a man made, and its end is at least in part a transhumanist one, whereby “a new world will emerge” from the conflict of sides, as Kim Newman notes in Nightmare Movies. In its tritest sense, we find this in Michael Ironside’s Revok and his desire to take over, to become the new dominant species (through the mass distribution of ephemerol). His only difference from Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) is that of method; Ruth was, after all, willing to experiment on his pregnant wife, who gave birth to Revok and Stephen Lack’s Cameron Vale. Even come Blade Runner 2049, such ideas of uprising and revolution seem rather clumsy as plot devices, such that the stealth encroachment of the new flesh (Videodrome) carries more weight and resonance.

But if Revok’s plan – and the spying of Lawrence Dane’s Consec Head of Security Keller – is a little on the rote side, and Cronenberg, for all his lo-fi science-fiction sheen, aided by then regular cinematographer Mark Irwin, delivers chamber-piece visions of epochal events, many of the ideas are acute. We’ve seen De Palma explore the surveillance services putting the psychically gifted to use in The Fury by this point, and the talk of corporate interests supplying espionage and private armies conjures visions of much-vaunted super soldiers, be they psychic (Montauk) or augmented (black goo).

Rather than a host of gruey deformities – give or take the odd exploding head and popping veins – Cronenberg has a more contained evolution in mind in Scanners, such that the end note is, as Newman notes, his version of a happy ending. Even one that involves inhabiting a villain’s body (it might have been more effective had Ironside given a genuinely changed performance, utilising his own voice, rather than hearing Lack through him).

Can it be a coincidence that Cronenberg, an atheist (“I think atheism is an acceptance of what is real”) should call his psychic-producing drug ephemerol (ephemeral)? The only means of immortality, in Scanners, is continuance through appropriation of another physical vessel (very pointedly, Cameron makes short work of a yoga master, a much-vaunted symbol of spiritual advancement). These new humans embody scientism, despite the emphasis on power of the mind. Symptoms of being scanned – nosebleeds, earaches, stomach cramps, nausea, etc – might also characterise an EM assault. And very pre-Neo, Cameron’s embodiment of the next step in evolution can infiltrate and control computer systems, even if he is not yet one himself (“You have a nervous system and so does a computer”). The title itself, and therefore the skillset of these new humans, invokes technological application.

Cronenberg commented "I'm interested in saying, 'Let us discuss the existential question. We are all going to die, that is the end of all consciousness. There is no afterlife. There is no God. Now what do we do.' That's the point where it starts getting interesting to me". But it is, also, a very limiting sandpit. Like many with a singular vision, Cronenberg has some very fixed ideas governing his world. He would, for example, be in a pretty pickle if the façade of his philosophy, rooted as it is in Pasteurian virus theory, were suddenly ripped away. It is, after all, the kernel of most of his early work. The idea that it is not only real, but also, look at it from the disease’s point of view: it just wants to survive.

Doubtless he would dispute such reductive characterisation, and it’s undoubtedly a generalisation, but the frostiness of his vision very much keys into finite, materialist perspectives, whereby we may be consumed, leaving nothing of ourselves behind, or what is left is curiously removed from any emotionally invested component (and a spiritual one is right out).

It’s probably partly because my appreciation of his work as a director has always been somewhat qualified, then, but I found this revisit of Scanners more rewarding than I expected. The movie definitely has its issues. Lack lacks the weight Ironside, all twisted, gurning, savaging of the screen, brings to bear. He’s okay, but more striking for his wide-eyed appearance than his performance.

There’s a sense too that the picture’s progression should take more time (Newman believes it goes so fast, you only look at flaws in retrospect). Cameron becomes actualised very speedily, and Revok turns on him even more so; in the space of a single exchange, he decides that’s quite enough of his plan for them to unite (one might argue he was itching for a fight anyway, but it’s still a disappointment). Likewise, McGoohan, who gives a marvellously authoritative performance as Ruth; it’s the kind of element that’s beyond a price tag in what it adds to the movie. Which makes it a shame his character rather perfunctorily exits after muttering to himself about past deeds, receiving a bullet in the head offscreen. Cronenberg also dumps reams of exposition, from Ruth and then from Revok, in a most ungainly manner, clearly having concluded it’s time to wrap things up.

But the bits that work are transfixing, and the tone and atmosphere are aided throughout by Howard Shore’s hypnotic synths. The opening Consec marketing event (“I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one”) remains a masterful set piece, not merely for its explosive climax. Cameron discovering his powers (“You were, right, Doctor Ruth. It was easy”) and his visit to sculptor Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), who leads a discourse inside a giant head, are compelling. And there’s the scanner group Cameron attends, in which the mantra of losing oneself to the group will has a troubling subtext all its own.

Cronenberg opined that he and McGoohan didn’t hit it off (“His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything”; reference to his drinking may explain why he and Mad Mel got on – well, that and Catholicism), yet at the same time noting “But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn't there, so he was right to worry about it”. Lack liked Pat (“a man of vast intellectual capacities and great heart”) but was less effusive about Ironside (“Ironside wants to prove that he’s as good as whoever he’s trying to be as good as. And that’s exciting for Michael and the audience. He does a good villain, though I don’t feel that a good villain necessarily has to scowl”).

I probably first became aware of Scanners through the Starburst cover (I didn’t pick up a copy until much later, but that poster art is an all-timer). And yet, it wasn’t a movie that really stayed with me. It was only watching it this time that I realised a trio of lines on Future Sound of London’s Among Myselves – “I can hear myself”; “I think I’m a little afraid”; “They were drowning me” – are from the picture.

I wonder how Cronenberg sees things just now, whether he’s had his shots and is looking forward to his eventual fate, desperately hoping it’s the transhumanist one, rather than the alternative. His next, Crimes of the Future – the same title as his second film – is apparently an explicit exploration of transhumanism by way of opposing factions, but he may be judged to have been more influential a force when he was ahead of the curve.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.