Reflecting on movies I have seen is one of my favorite things in the world to do, probably only second to actually watching them. A recent post about David Cronenberg’s film The Brood (1979) got me thinking about some of his earlier films. Which, in turn, led me back to a particular sequence in Scanners (1981) that seems remarkable to me in that it is probably the earliest imagining of the future possibilities of the internet on film I can recall And while I am sure there are early examples in film that I am unaware of, it is remarkable that Scanners comes two years before the most popular instantiation of remote computer networking and intranet hacking is widely popularized in film with WarGames (1983).
Scanners is one of the many Cronenberg’s films that explores his predominant fascination with embodied otherness as a physical, mental, and often medical phenomenon. In this case the motif is imagined through a group of humans that can communicate with one another without words by means of telepathy, access “normal” people’s thoughts, and even control and/or harm others with their paranormal telekinetic powers. The story evolves around an evil plot for world domination spearheaded by the rogue scanner Darryl Revok (played by one of the great bad guys of 1980s film Michael Ironside) wherein these mental mutants would seize powers from the “normals” — not unlike the premise for the first (and best) X-Men film (2000).
The film’s protagonist, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), is a compassionate scanner who uncovers the plot and attempts to foil the underground scanner insurgency. The scene below frames a moment in the film when Vale is accessing a sensitive information from ConSec’s corporate database with his mind by way of a pay phone. This was my first encounter with the conception of dialing into a network, and it would be more than ten years before I actually experienced it for myself. Cronenberg planted the imaginative seed in Scanners long before it would even begin to make sense to me.
What is interesting about this clip is how it reflects a moment of computing, this was well before the internet, and computing was imagined as a purely scientific vocation with the technicians dressed in lab coats (I want one of those!) surrounded by a room full of sophisticated, sterile, and hulking machinery. What’s more, is I really enjoy the way Cronenberg films the close-ups of the circuit boards, using the camera to imagine the other-worldliness of the inner spaces of this network (as an aside, for some strange reason it reminds me of the opening title sequence of Philip Kaufman’s the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when you see the disembodied alien pods making their way towards earth). This scene in Scanners imagines the idea of a network as a remote negotiation between human minds and data through the material realities telephone lines, circuitry, and terminals. This scene imagines a corporal fusion of mind and machine and the ensuing struggle between people that is mediated by a new and developing infrastructure of access, information, and security.
As the character Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) notes in the following clip: “Vales’s nervous system and the computer’s nervous system are joined together; he’s scanning it. I want to cripple them both, or maybe kill them both — but how?”
It’s interesting to re-watch Cronenberg’s film and think about the powers of remote connection in relationship to ideas such as telepathy in our current moment, which in many ways is taken for granted given its relative ubiquity —Twitter is just one example of a pretty amazing form of filtered, constant presence and knowing. At the same time, this film focuses on the amazing and disturbing implications of distributed networks as somehow telekinetic in their ability to control or hurt others remotely —but more on this in my next post.