With David Cronenberg’s early films largely hinging of bodily infestation and psychic phenomena running rampant, the director’s 1981 film Scanners shifted focus to the peril of a world where mutation can be controlled, commodified and even manufactured. Despite being bookended by two scenes of graphic gore—including the iconic exploding head—Scanners isn’t horror, instead leaning hard into science-fiction while ultimately presenting a political conspiracy thriller. That approach does somewhat dilute an immensely intriguing premise involving a small group of psychokinetic individuals capable of mentally infiltrating other minds, bodies and even computer mainframes. Given such a wealth of potential, seeing swaths of the film play out in lengthy boardroom discussions with pretentious, pipe-smoking big wigs or through rote car chases and gun battles does, at times, undercut the supernatural elements at play. But despite the film’s flaws, Cronenberg offers a cynical take on late capitalism, the pharmaceutical industry and the increasing technological connectivity of the pre-internet era.

The final, fiery psychic showdown between the former vagrant Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) and guerilla scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is set in motion through early scenes in which each man demonstrates his psychokinetic prowess in devastating ways. In doing so, both men end up catching the attention of shadowy private military corporation ConSec. After two stuffy, well-off women cluck their tongues at his shabby hobo clothes in a mall food court, Vale uses his mind to stricken one of them with a violent seizure, at which point the ConSec goons surveilling him pounce. Meanwhile, Revok seemingly benignly volunteers to be “scanned” by a psychokinetic at a ConSec marketing demo, only to turn the tables and obliterate the poor, unsuspecting scanner’s skull before making his escape.

In custody, Vale is medicated to quell the incessant influx of overlapping voices with which the telepathic aspect of his scanner ability inundates him. With Vale’s mind clear, ConSec’s Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) can help Vale control and precisely wield his extrasensory abilities. But the good doctor’s intentions are not exactly beneficent, as Dr. Ruth wants to use Vale to take down Revok. The latter has been approaching each of the several dozen known scanners to recruit them for his revolution against ConSec and advance his mission for world domination, killing whichever scanners decline his proposition. Vale’s initial mental torment was even once shared by a young Revok, as archival footage shows an institutionalized, twentysomething Revok describing how he drilled a hole between his eyes to let out “the pressure” building within his head. That the two are eventually revealed, in an exposition-heavy coda, to be brothers (and sons of Dr. Ruth) who were subjected to doses of scanner-creating drug Ephemerol in the womb is a ham-handed twist emblematic of Scanners relative conventionality.

For a director who had thus far lurked on the grimy fringes of cinema, the film feels like a swerve toward the mainstream. And yet, many of Cronenberg’s trademark thematic fixations remain intact—justified paranoia, psychic abilities, bodies in revolt—if blunted by frequent info-dumps and the wooden acting from the film’s lead. As bland as Lack is, even a more dynamic performance would clearly be no match for Ironside’s villainous turn as Revok. Ironside oozes menace nearly every moment onscreen, and the flimsiest stretches in Cronenberg’s film occur in Revok’s absence, when the director trots out a series of interchangeable bureaucrats, scientists and henchmen that the audience cares next to nothing about. Though flawed in its storytelling, Scanners is effectively atmospheric due to Howard Shore’s unnerving, pulsing synth score and the film’s ominous sound editing, which cranks up in frequency whenever a scanner is using their powers, saving many scenes from the visual silliness of scanners’ piercing glares and victims’ contorted faces as Cronenberg depicts unseen forces at work.

Strangely enough, Scanners is the result of an odd mix of both a long-brewing idea and last-second scrambling. A spiritual sequel to Cronenberg’s debut, Stereo, which also featured psychic powers, the concept was originally conceived of by the director in a script called The Sensitives and later even pitched to B-movie maven Roger Corman before taking shape as Scanners. But at the beginning of production, Cronenberg didn’t even have a finished script or constructed sets and has called this one of his most challenging pictures to make. Even the vivid head-exploding scene was somewhat makeshift; when incendiary technology failed to produce a convincing effect, the fake head was eventually stuffed with odd scraps, including “leftover hamburgers,” and simply blasted with a shotgun.

It’s to Cronenberg’s credit, then, that this uneven film does manage to advance his artistic vision. Moving from physical manifestations of mental trauma in The Brood, where unintentional offspring do the subconscious bidding of an oblivious patient, he goes a step further in Scanners with characters who can focus their psychic powers to (as Dr. Ruth describes Revok’s evolution) shift from being “self-destructive” to “simply destructive.” In contemplating, however obliquely at times, the impact that technology has on the human body and mind, seeds are planted here for the “new flesh” that would more effectively manifest in his next film, Videodrome.

But Scanners lands its more impactful blows through its sociopolitical nihilism, in which techno-capitalism is bound to eat itself. As Vale and Revok wage metaphysical warfare in the film’s vein-rupturing, eye-popping climax, Vale bursts into flames as his soul possesses Revok’s body in what amounts to a hostile takeover. Though the film spawned two cinematic sequels and some TV spinoffs, Cronenberg’s Scanners vision ends here, with a victory for the good guys that nevertheless creates an unprecedented amalgam of two juggernaut forces whose combination will have untold effects on the world. For Cronenberg, that’s about as optimistic as things get.

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