Future-fearing science fiction is a tradition as old as any in our stories. The crux of these stories is nothing less than the bleeding heart of human nature, our innate ways of being, and the cold wedges are driven into it by the advance of technology. Under its chrome-plated exterior, science fiction is for psychology, philosophy, and sociology.
No other science fiction film has made its dissection quite like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. At turns, both bafflingly obtuse and crystalline clear, the 1983 film reads like a cataloguing and rag-tag synthesis of various ideas on where technology was taking us – touching on everything from hyperconnected utopianism, mass media mind control, and even the screen’s function as a dredge for the deepest, darkest recesses of human desire.
Though drawing clearly from the 80s, Cronenberg’s late-night TV nightmare has found more and more prescience through the decades; it remains strikingly easy to import Videodrome’s paranoiac messaging to our current times.
On a director’s commentary, David Cronenberg explained the film’s first kernels in a childhood pastime – scanning through fuzzy TV frequencies and catching vague TV signals from America, late at night and long after Canadian stations had stopped broadcasting, fearing he’d stumble onto something he wasn’t supposed to see, something corrosive or harmful.
The film picks up on much the same wavelength. Max Renn, president of a smut television station, is constantly hunting for new material to take his programming that next rung down into depravity – the cutting edge in violent or sexual content, ‘something tough’, he says, almost spitting the words.
He finds it in ‘Videodrome’, scattered transmissions intercepted by his broadcast-buccaneering radio tech, showing nothing but sadistic torture – pure, unadulterated sex and death. Following the logic of Cronenberg’s childhood fears to their conclusion, Renn’s obsessive pursuit of the Videodrome broadcast’s mainline of depraved stimulation exposes him to horrors which, if let loose upon our TV screens, threaten to destroy us all, or to deliver us into the world of the TV screen, ‘the new flesh’.
Videodrome’s messaging is blunt and literal – media as something infectious, sickly seductive, harmful even physically – but it draws from very real concerns regarding the exponential rise of TV viewing in the 80s. This was the first time that the screen threatened to rival or even supplant our actual five senses as the medium of truth, whether measured by the number of people viewing or by the hours they would watch, often at-length. This is shown wonderfully in the film’s opening – a dozing Max receives a wake-up message from his secretary, delivered through the still-on TV screen; he stirs awake at the exact moment the transmission ends.
An obvious point of reference here is Marshall McLuhan, and Videodrome proceeds like a fever-dream application of the media scholar’s work to the science fiction and body horror genres. Much like Videodrome’s clearly inspired Dr. Brian O’Blivion, McLuhan was a pop-critic savant of the broadcasting age, urging caution of the very airwaves he appeared on regularly through talk shows and interview bits.
His work was concerned with media effects and the implications of the drastic increase in content saturation and screen-gazing seen in the early ’80s. Much of the contemporary scholarship addressed the societal impacts of media hyper-connection; Videodrome leaps to the question – what does this mean for us as flesh-and-blood humans, for now, and for the future?
Hands Through The Screen
No particular answer is offered in Cronenberg’s film. We get underscoring themes, ideas, and possibilities heaped upon each other, but no thesis. Thankfully so, because this indeterminacy is what makes Videodrome so truthful; each angle seemed possible going forward, and still does.
Videodrome is notable for its singular take on physical transformation and transcendence through technology. Other science fiction films such as Ghost in the Shell or Ex Machina may approach this literally – AI robots, robotic limbs, the outer limits of ‘human’ physicality – whereas Videodrome takes the mind-altering effects of media indulgence and plays them out physically, and often grotesquely.
O’Blivion refers to the TV screen as the ‘retina of the mind’s eye’, and Cronenberg has clarified that he considers technology an extension of the human body. As a result, in Videodrome’s irreality, TV sets breathe and bleed; human bodies become VHS tape ports; body parts meld with machinery, or are ripped apart by them; hands reach out for their audiences beyond the TV screen.
It’s a motif largely in service of a broader metaphor – the distancing effect of the screen, of media generally, is effecting our basic humanity, warping and contorting it as much as any actual physical modification might. When you see something through a screen, you partake in whatever delights or horrors it may depict from a safe vantage point, and once you’ve seen enough of something, you want something more.
Max believes his programming offers a “harmless outlet for [his viewer’s] fantasies and frustrations” – and yet Max is left constantly searching for the most depraved content he can find, endlessly inching the outer limits of what he considers ‘socially positive’ viewing. By taking the outcomes to the surreal extremes described above, Videodrome remains a potent warning against the dehumanising effect of vicarious media indulgence.
This is only part of Videodrome’s sweep. Will the screen soon be more real than the eyes-and-ears thing? Dr. O’Blivion thinks so – he claims we will all soon have ‘special names’ in some future digital world, and his strange monologue about TV-viewing-inflicted brain tumours allowing him a portless connection to the broadcasted stream of information lends itself to Matrix-like readings on virtual reality.
A war is waged over control of the Videodrome signal between O’Blivion’s camp of technological utopianists, the Cathode Ray Tube Mission, and an international eyewear corporation who also dabble in weapons manufacturing, Spectacular Optical; a mind-controlled Max flips sides multiple times in the film, and the whole convoluted farce resembles an extremely literal take on media messaging and ideology. Max’s and Nicki’s rendezvous – through a TV set – addresses the screen’s increasing role as the site of fulfillment and gratification, sexual or otherwise.
Etcetera, etcetera; with less than 90 minutes of runtime, Videodrome somehow makes room for almost every possibility regarding how endless mass media consumption may impact us. As a result, Videodrome is painted in broad strokes, a Pynchonesque tapestry of satire and forward-looking extrapolations. Messy and effusive, yet hugely compelling, the film is less a clean-cut statement and more a sheer, all-in expression.
Science fiction films are products of their time. What was around the corner then? Have we gone further than that now? A third into the film, Nicki Brand, herself a pundit of emotional out letting and pacification through her talkback radio show, makes the declaration: “I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it, we always want more whether its tactile, emotional, or sexual. I think that’s bad”.
Like almost all else in the film, it’s only become more true over the decades, to the point where it would be an entirely rote, no-duh statement if it were first said today. It would be similarly pointless to map out the endless parallels between Videodrome’s VHS forecastings and the hyper-connection of our internet age. The film’s prescience speaks for itself, first for broadcast TV’s sordid late-night corners, now for the world wide web’s dark underbelly, and soon for whatever else may be next.
Videodrome drew from the very beginnings of media democratisation – the ability to chose what you would watch, whether prime-time soaps or late-night filth and how long you would peruse it for, be it hours or possibly even days. The film’s visual language is that of unspooled VHS cassettes, humming radio towers, and flickering TV screens, all of which place it firmly in the early 80s. Despite this, Videodrome’s feverish portrayal of the seductive allure and caustic bite of media indulgence and hyperreality remains to-the-minute.
Can you think of any other films from the 80s as prescient as Videodrome? What other things about our current day do you think Videodrome got right? Let us know in the comments!
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.