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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Scanners is a 1981 action / science fiction / horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg.



Scanners are people with telepathic and telekinetic abilities, with a total of 237 of them documented by ConSec, a corporation specializing in weaponry and security systems. ConSec, in an attempt to exploit their talents, captures 35-year-old Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) at a mall; he supposedly possesses tremendous scanner power, but has become a derelict through inability to cope with the overload of hearing others' thoughts. Meanwhile, ConSec's last scanner is murdered at a press conference by scanner renegade Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) in the infamous exploding head scene. Revok escapes, killing five people in the process.

Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the Head of ConSec's Scanner Section, decides to infiltrate the Scanner Underworld by "converting" a scanner (the recently-captured Vale) and sending him to find Revok and report back to ConSec. A new Head of Security, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) is at the same time welcomed to ConSec. Dr. Ruth tells Vale that scanners can suppress their telepathic powers by injecting themselves with the drug ephemerol, and sends him to find Revok. The only lead is Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman), a sociopathic artist who tried to kill his family at the age of 10.

After discovering Pierce's address in a gallery exhibiting his morbid sculptures, Vale goes to visit him, finding him living in isolation in the country. While there, Revok, intent on killing all scanners unwilling to join his renegade faction, sends four assassins with shotguns to dispatch Pierce. Pierce is shot, and Vale, from his hiding place, flings the assassins into unconsciousness. As Pierce is dying, Vale scans his mind and obtains information on where to find other scanners.

At the new address, Vale meets Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill) and several other scanners who have adjusted to their powers by forming a mutual telepathic circle. Before long, the party is ambushed by Revok's two surviving assassins, who are killed by Obrist. In the ensuing escape, all scanners are killed save for Vale and Obrist, who find out where Revok can be found.

Vale infiltrates Revok's Ripe Program and finds out a large quantity of ephemerol being delivered somewhere. He and Kim go back to ConSec to inform Dr. Ruth. They find out that there's a traitor in the company - Keller - who kills Dr. Ruth by Revok's orders. Vale and Obrist escape by scanning the ConSec guards, and infiltrate Ripe Program through a payphone. In a last attempt to kill Vale, Keller orders a group of scientists to make the program self-destruct as Vale is plugged to it, but the plan backfires, and the laboratory blows up, killing Keller in the explosion.

Vale and Kim visit Dr. Frane, who has been prescribing the drug ephemerol to pregnant women. In the waiting room, Kim is shocked to find that she has been scanned by an unborn baby. As they leave his office, they are ambushed by Revok and shot with anaesthetic darts. When Vale wakes up, he is in Revok's office. He is told by Revok that they are brothers, sons of the late Dr. Ruth, and that scanners were the children of pregnant women, who were prescribed ephemerol as a tranquilizer. Revok reveals his plan to distribute ephemerol and make an army of scanners to take over the world, inviting Vale to join him. He refuses, and they engage in a gory scanner duel, where they mutilate each other through mind control, apparently to the point of mutual destruction.

As Kim wakes up several hours later in the next room, she finds Vale's incinerated body on the floor. Revok is cowering in a corner, hidden under Vale's jacket. He then reveals that he now has Vale's blue eyes (and is missing the characteristic scar between the eyebrows) uttering his last words, "We've won" in Vale's voice. It seems to be implied that during their battle Vale was somehow able to switch minds, leaving Vale inside Revok's body and Revok dead in Vale's now destroyed body.



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 sci-fi 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. As a result, Cronenberg has said, Scanners was a nightmare to make.

Master make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist) provided the spectacular prosthetic make-up effects for the exploding head and the climatic scanner duel.

Cameron Vale and Kim Obrist's children (David Kellum and Julie Vale) are shown in the sequel to this movie.

The use, marketing, and birth defects caused by the fictional drug ephemerol parallel the real-life drug thalidomide. Thalidomide was chiefly sold and prescribed during the late 1950s and early 1960s to pregnant women, and led to severe malformations of children when taken during pregnancy.

References in other media

  • The 1976-1984 sketch-comedy series SCTV included a recurring sketch titled Farm Film Report in which Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (John Candy) satirized conventional film review programs, using a stereotypical redneck slant. Consistently, their favorite film was Scanners, with all other films compared to it and found wanting. The sketch routinely closed with the salute to the audience: "May the Good Lord watch over you, and blow ya up real soon!"
  • In the 1992 movie Wayne's World, at one point Garth freezes while on TV, prompting an onlooker to comment, "Ever see that scene in Scanners when that dude's head blew up?"
  • In a 1993 episode, 511-"Gunslinger", of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Dr. Clayton Forrester offers "The Scanner Planner" (which, of course, deals with blowing up people's heads a la Daryl Revok) as his end of the episode's "invention exchange". Dr. Forrester then proceeds to use the lessons taught in "The Scanner Planner" to blow up first Tom Servo's head, and then (by the end of the episode) TV's Frank's head. The cover of the planner features the iconic image of Michael Ironside as Daryl Revok, as he is shown during the film's climactic "Scanner battle".
  • In the 1995 movie Tommy Boy, Richard (David Spade) states "Did anyone see Scanners?" when he realizes the orders have been cancelled.
  • A 1996 episode of Saturday Night Live featured a sketch titled "Jimmy Tango's Fat Busters". Jim Carrey poses as "Jimmy Tango", a formerly obese man who lost weight through the use of crystal meth and a vibrating heat bead suit. Jimmy interviews members of the crowd, some of which have already started using his "program". One member (played by Will Ferrell) claims to be the devil, at which point Jimmy baits him into fighting with the phrase "talk is cheap, scan me" and the two begin having a scanner battle, ending with Ferrell bleeding from the scalp and begging Jimmy to stop.
  • Scanners was referenced in a 2008 episode of The Big Bang Theory whereby the characters of Sheldon and Penny attempt, unsuccessfully, to make people's heads explode like as in the film.
  • The Daily Show frequently uses the exploding head scene to illustrate "mind blowing" news.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Scanners" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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