Release Date: February 4th, 1983 (US); November 25th, 1983 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Science-fiction
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
If David Cronenberg was as good at picking lottery numbers as he is at predicting the future, then he’d absolutely be a millionaire by now. No, a billionaire. You know that modern culture of consumption to which we all find ourselves enslaved, the same one that probably has you reading this on an electronic device? (Email, Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix later, perhaps?) It’s all here, in Videodrome, only thirty years early. Cronenberg unfurls a prophetic prosecution of television that feels even more relevant in 2014 than it likely did back in the early eighties, when small-screen dominance was probably just an anxiety-wrapped possibility. Videodrome, therefore, is steeped in a philosophy of purpose and accuracy, one that is interesting to consider within our contemporary context. Unfortunately, the film itself struggles to keep up with the ideas developed. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen it all before, but Videodrome is just a bit… boring.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the kind of guy Sigmund Freud would’ve been had Freud awoken a century later and veered closer to the sexual in psychosexual. He runs CIVIC-TV, a television station based in Toronto that relays unorthodox programming, and is on the look-out for something new to up the ante, something different. Luckily for Max — or perhaps unluckily — he stumbles across a feed airing uncoordinated brutality, called Videodrome. What appears to be sensationalist artifice quickly takes on a disconcerting meaning, and begins to invade more of Max’s existence than desired.
“Television is reality and reality is less than television,” retorts Brian O’Blivion, a professor who professes only through the televisual medium. His character is the essence of Cronenberg’s agenda: a victim of media gobbling. O’Blivion has dedicated a significant portion of his own life to the study of human obsession when it comes to television in particular, employing the visual instrument ultimately as a means not to an end, but to a forever. If O’Blivion is the essence, then his creation Videodrome is the agent of consumption. Though the exhibits on screen are morally questionable, perhaps even legally ambiguous, our leading man Max is increasingly drawn towards goings-on. And not only Max, his romantic interest Nicki too. She, having seen Videodrome, desires only to become a part of it. To be infused in a new televisual reality. Up until this point, there’s a precise and engaging ideology being explored, one that is embedded firmly in the fabric of modern times. (We’re so absorbed by television that we now watch people watching it). The domineering TV pull is a wholly engaging stance and Cronenberg deserves credit, given how accurately Videodrome mirrors today’s norms.
Eventually, notions of mass societal control, planted memories and geopolitical monopolies come into play as Cronenberg’s condemnation of the television culture expands — in truth, perhaps too many strands are added. The tone switches from one of warning to one driven by preachy sound waves. Instead of a cautionary tale about how an inanimate object can become empirical upon leeching itself onto humanity, Videodrome advances down a route of denunciation as it attempts to make our minds up for us. We watch and listen as characters discuss standing firm against “savage new times”; society having to be “pure, direct and strong”; and a “cesspool TV station” whose viewers are “rotting civilisation away from the inside”. The message is clear: beware any abnormal pseudo-violent tendencies in order to avoid them flowing into real life. A noble message, had it not come by way of a fictional film.
A film, incidentally, coughing up splurges of violence from beginning until end. Torsos pave way for VCR slots and hands take on the form of guns. These images are nasty and gooey, yet not as memorable as Cronenbergian bloodshed normally is. The body horror prosthetics are as slimy and grimy as ever, but don’t quite fit the reality-imbued mould proposed by the film. There’s no denying the clarity illustrating this as an inherently Cronenberg creation: grotesque bodily malfunctions, a techno-infection prerogative, the socio-political framework, some inconclusive chronologies. Yet, unlike many of the Canadian’s previous outings, Videodrome manifests without much gusto. It feels a tad worn. Though the ideas mentioned earlier are engaging, perhaps they only really draw a fresh appeal because of their prematurity. These ideas of global consumption have been tossed to-and-fro relentlessly over the last few decades; only recently Transcendence hit cinemas, a film that takes this notion a step further by physically infusing technology with a human being.
James Woods is good as the disingenuous-cum-traumatised CEO Max Renn. He’s not a very likeable chap — not many of the characters are, another issue intertwined within the film’s ever-growing list of problems — yet Woods ushers forth enough of a switch in morality to justify some form of sympathy. As Max’s love interest and radio host Nicki Brand, Deborah Harry doesn’t have an awful lot to do, nor does her character boast any redeemable qualities, instead only a flip-flopping ethical stance. (“I think we live in over-stimulated times… and I think that’s bad,” explains Nicki, before chatting up Max whilst wearing a red dress.) Sonja Smits has a cup of tea as O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca, whereas O’Blivion himself Jack Creley implores us to listen through his direct and sincere vocal delivery.
David Cronenberg encourages discussion about issues of media consumption that herald even more relevance within the context of today’s cultural and societal posture. However, as Videodrome progresses and happenings lose practical clarity, the film too squanders precision and veracity by introducing extra narrative elements that preach to us rather than alongside us. Never mind, I think I’ve got an episode of Gogglebox to catch up on.
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures