For a movie that is the sequel to the spin-off of a film that people mostly remember for the exploding head sequence, I shouldn’t have expected much. David Cronenberg had demonstrated his potential as a writer and director with 1981’s body-horror classic Scanners, but by the time this Steve Barnett film came out 14 years later, his entire involvement was as a bit of advertising copy and a small payment. But whilst Scanners: The Showdown fails to be a worthwhile watch by any conventional standards, it does hold some very valuable lessons about how to screw up a decent central premise.
The original Scanners established a fairly solid bit of mythos. The titular group is people who, due to their mother’s being administered the wonder-drug Ephemerol (a stand-in for the then highly topical thalidomide) are born with telepathy and biokinesis. Effectively, untold thousands of psychic children are now in the general population; each with the ability to read thoughts, control minds, and make people do the head-exploding thing by looking at them harshly. That one of them has now become a cop (Sam Staziak, played by Daniel Quinn) opens up a whole world of complexity.
Sadly, that’s a world that never gets looked into. When the police doctor finds out that Sam is a scanner, he finds it about as interesting as heterochromia. That same doctor is also able to freely prescribe a drug that is specifically designed to suppress scanner abilities. The drug’s existence makes sense because untreated scanners go insane and start killing people, but its ease of availability implies a significantly large population of persons-of-mass-destruction. It also suggests that no one is tracking its sale because these incredibly dangerous people are somehow just not worth basic monitoring activities.
On top of this, there is the fact that Sam is a police officer, and the entire plan to keep his scanner status is to not tell anyone. Other than his police doctor, his Sargent, the Lieutenant, or anyone in earshot whilst they’re talking loudly about scanner things. There’s also anyone on the force, or in its general facility, who can put two-and-two together about scanners existing in large numbers and this particular officer always catching lucky breaks, having 100% correct gut feelings about things, and being able to get all the information needed to break the case by looking at a suspect in a squinty manner. Given that the anti-scanner drug is available next to the aspirin, going “I think that cop is a scanner” wouldn’t be wild conspiracy talk. Additionally, if a medical condition is common enough for a GP to be disinterested by it then there will be lawyers out and about to make money off it. Is scanning a violation of a criminal’s rights? Can Sam’s evidence stand up in court? Does a post-scan nose bleed count as police brutality? Inquiring checkbooks want to know! However, this film doesn’t care less and leaves everything in a contradictory state of inconsistency, which makes it impossible to know what the stakes are.
Away from the confusingly dualistic nature of scanners, there is the far more pressing nature of how they fight each other. On paper, this would be described as a primal force of wills, two egos’ battling for control of the other’s anatomy, a titanic struggle of pure psychic might! On film, it’s two people looking at each other like they need to go to the toilet. Sometimes they circle each other, whilst appearing to fight a serious case of constipation. The actors (including the magnificent Patrick Kilpatrick as the main bad guy) give it their very best, but it is still two grown adults having a staring competition and no amount of stirring music is going to stop it from looking silly. Eventually, often after three or so minutes of really hard staring, one of them gets a nosebleed and falls over.
The original Scanners got around this problem in third ways. Firstly, in one of the opening scenes, it made someone’s head explode. This established that the film was cool and demonstrated the stakes involved. And then, because you apparently can’t have a film that is just cranial explosions, it established that that takes a lot of effort so what most scanners do is the nosebleed-to-fall-over thing and gave everyone guns. The stakes were still deadly, it was a different, more dynamic danger. Then, the third trick in the third act, once things got really serious with the bad guy, was to do something even more awesome than the head explosion. But it’s was a longer sequence and more intellectually horrifying, so that didn’t become a legendary gif.
Scanner Cop 2 had a much simpler plan: the pre-poo fights for all the drossy mini-baddies and then a second-rate head explosion for the big bad. Because if there’s one thing that’ll make people love the ending of a film, it’s the establishing incident of the first movie done with less gore. It worked in Scanner Cop 1, so it’ll work in Scanner Cop 2. And by “worked” I mean was just naff and underwhelming. But then, anything else would have taken the effort of not assuming the script was fine on the first draft.
This film failed to establish any kind of long-term, personal stakes for the main character (beyond “My head could go boom!”), because it didn’t think about the knock-on of the previous films set up. It also failed to review how the original made eye-staring contents not look stupid and be dull, and decided to latch onto a classic image and mishandle it by moving it to the wrong part of the plot. What could have been a perfectly serviceable bit of nonsense with a few line rewrites and one set of pyros became irritatingly trashy. That it was a virtual copy of Scanner Cop made it even worse, as it’s clear that the producers (and the watchers) hadn’t learned a thing.