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Flashback: A Retrospective Look at An Imagined Future

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David Cronenberg, Scanners, 1981; The Criterion Collection.
David Cronenberg, Scanners, 1981; the Criterion Collection.

In the coming weeks, two sci-fi horror masterworks by David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott will be re-examined, as movie fans will be given the opportunity to view their films in new and improved formats. The Plaza Theater will be screening a digitally restored copy of Alien, Scott’s 1979 classic, from July 4 through the 10. And, after years outside of scholarly inquiry, Cronenberg’s breakthrough film, Scanners (1981), will receive a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release on July 15.

Georgia Museum of Art

The forthcoming release of Scanners and Alien allows for a peculiar comparative analysis of the two works. While both films’ soundtracks rely heavily on ’80s synthpop, the two narratives veer in completely opposite directions. Alien focuses on the absolute isolation of space travel inside a labyrinthine and macabre vessel (the USCSS Nostromo) centuries in the future. Scanners draws its conflict from the inability of the dangerously telepathic “Scanners” to interact and participate in a society governed by a contradictory set of moral codes.

Both films closely reflect the greater oeuvre of their directors. The dystopian and biomechanical aesthetic of Alien can be seen in Scott’s later science fiction works, including the critically acclaimed Blade Runner (1982) as well as Alien’s prequel, Prometheus (2012). Much like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), Scanners operates as a cerebral examination of the mind’s relationship to the social world and its growing dependence on advanced technology in the modern age.

While the monumental success of Alien served as a springboard for the career of Sigourney Weaver, Scanners established Cronenberg as an edgy young director among critics and Hollywood intelligentsia, despite its modest box office gross.

Special effects generally do not age well, but viewing these films’ visual effects as a catalyst for later science-fiction filmmaking provides a more nuanced perspective of the works. At the time, the costume and set design of Alien were viewed as a major triumph on the film’s meager $11-million budget. Ominous sound effects imply the alien creature’s lurking presence offscreen, moving through the eerie corridors within the vessel. As the camera tracks Weaver’s character negotiating the ship’s deserted communal spaces, the austere interiors offer no solace for the hunted protagonist or the fearful audience.

View of the Nostromo's interior passageways in Ridley Scott's Alien of 1979.
View of the Nostromo’s interior passageways in Ridley Scott’s Alien of 1979.

With an estimated $3.5-million budget, Scanners relied heavily on lighting, staging, and soundtrack to elicit fear and anticipation from the audience. The bloody explosion of human heads within the film’s diegesis appears antiquated and humorous now but, at the time of its release, the effects were viewed as a major budgetary and cinematic triumph. Throughout his career, Cronenberg has continued to emphasize the bizarre and uncomfortable interplay between his characters as a source of horror and contemplation.

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While the content of these films has little in common, they both represent an exciting time in science-fiction filmmaking. The emergence of the computer as a source of awe and anxiety is reflected in their narratives and aesthetics. Thirty years later, some of the technological neurosis found in the two films seems unfounded, but the interaction between the protagonists and the imagined technology continues to resonate. Re-mastered or not, Scanners and Alien are worth a second look.

Ryan Scallan is a film and media studies graduate student at Emory University, and is currently serving as BURNAWAY’s editorial intern.

Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979; 20th Century Fox.
Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979; 20th Century Fox.