There’s a common urban legend that human beings only use ten percent of their brains. It’s also rumored that this potential could lead to psychic powers, and that our nation (and others) are investigating ways to tap into this speculated skill.
In his 1981 masterwork, Canadian director David Cronenberg investigates what the world would be like if these psychic agents ever existed.
The film essentially revolves around a man with budding psychic powers who is recruited by the government to stop a rogue agent. These agents (called “Scanners” in the film) are equipped with seemingly limitless power. The rogue agent overloads a fellow scanner’s brain, causing it to explode in one scene. In another, he uses telepathic influence to convince his captor to run his car into a wall. Telepathy, pyrokinesis, technopathy, the mind seemingly does not stop expanding and evolving. While these powers are the Macguffin of the film, the driving force lies in Cronenberg’s genuis.
His strain of “biological horror” gels beautifully with this film. The film works on several metaphorical levels. The first being the danger of thought repression. These scanners are born with their abilities, they are not innately evil or good. Their recruitment by the government, their weaponization by these figures of power are what make them monstrous. The need to break out and be free is what drives the rogue scanner to rebel. The scanners represent higher learning, higher thinking, sophistication among the people. The government feels the need to control and suppress these gifted thinkers.
The second level is an almost personal address to his critics. In showing them a world where thoughts can actually kill, he contrasts the real world and reveals how paltry and insignificant their condemnation of his thoughts, ideas, and movies are in comparison.
Cronenberg knows how to make a movie with brains, and this film is considered by many to be his best.