Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

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