Max Headroom (1985)

(aka,Max Headroom:  The Original Story;

Twenty Minutes into the Future)

I always find it a touch amusing that one of the major sub-genres within science fiction (which tends to be a bit snobbish about being at its purest in print, as opposed to movies or TV) was born on the big screen.

Blade Runner (1982) is generally considered the seminal work of cyberpunk, and it certainly established the basics of the genre.  Other stories followed within a surprisingly short time — most notably William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984), but it has been fairly rare in film, despite starting there — and perhaps rarest of all on the small screen.

And yet, one of the major works of early cyberpunk was born on television, when a mere three years after Blade Runner, Britain’s Channel Four created a bleak and innovative story that introduced perhaps the best known cyberpunk character ever created.

Channel Four was a state-owned commercial network, and they wanted a Music video show because they were basically free.  They wanted something different, and envisioned something quite unlike the usual TV announcer.  As the project gradually took shape, they decided to make an introductory show to explain who Max Headroom was, and where he came from.

It is remarkable, when one hears the behind the scenes story, to realize what a long, gradual gestation it took to reach the final version of the film they made — and, of course, of Max as well.  Apparently, this sort of approach is more or less normal on British TV, which may be why it has turned out some quite remarkable programs, like Sapphire and Steel, Doctor Who, A for Andromeda, and, of course, the Quatermass serials.

Even today the original story looks remarkably good.  This is partly because of the atmospheric lighting, the curious combination of retro and futuristic elements (like the sixties vintage cars) and the surprising details, like Theora parking her car inside her elegant loft apartment.  We view much of the action through a variety of different video feeds, from Edison Carter’s official reporter’s camera, to door cameras and the omnipresent security cameras, with the footage deliberately made to look like different levels of  low-quality video.  What was perhaps the most groundbreaking element — for a television program, at least — was the extensive use of wireframe graphics for the computer displays of maps, building schematics and so forth (for comparison, it helps to remember that its first extensive use in a movie was the opening credits of The Black Hole only six years earlier).

In order to make their film look this good, they were forced to get American backing:  as a result, HBO ran The Original Story on Cinemax in an extended edition which featured a number of deleted scenes, and Max introducing several music videos.  A talk show followed, and ultimately a brief-lived American TV series.

What is truly remarkable here is that a simple need for a Vee Jay — one originally conceived as a special effect and not an actual talking head — led to a dense story about corporate intrigue, a crusading reporter, deadly ads, body snatchers, television ratings, a computer animated parrot, and, of course, exploding people.  Despite its brief running time, it is complex, plot heavy, and exists in an eccentric future world that feels very solid and convincing.

I would be hard pressed to name too many other Cyberpunk films that are anywhere near as good.  Admittedly this is largely due to Matt Frewer’s work in his double role (he remains one of the most talented character actors in SF and Horror today), here looking almost impossibly young (he even has some of his hair left!) although both Amanda Pays as his controller, Theora Jones, and Morgan Sheppard as aging punk rocker, Blank Reg, are excellent.  All three would appear in the American series two years later.

One thing, though, that I did not remember after all these years did surprise me.  While the American pilot episode is often derided for watering down the far bleaker original, it is true that there are a number of minor plot points, particularly at the very end, where it actually improved on the original.  I suppose, though, as there were no plans to have Edison Carter return to Channel Four (who merely wanted a VeeJay), it didn’t matter quite as much if Max and Edison didn’t team up at the end.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of this odd little film is that it remains bold and inventive even after more than thirty years.

However, Max is even better remembered than the TV movie that spawned him.  Thanks to Matt Frewer’s inspired performance, Max was not merely iconic, but funny and personable in his own strange way.  For an all too brief moment, he became one of the most visible TV personalities of the Eighties, interviewing celebrities, appearing on the news and doing commercials (including that infamous set of New Coke ads).  And then, as quickly as he’d come, Max vanished.

It seems a shame that the American series only lasted fourteen episodes, but it seems impossible that anyone would have made such a series in the Eighties.  After all, it mocked the things most dear to network television:  money, ratings, celebrity, and its far too comfortable relationship with its advertisers.

It makes sense that it would have come from an oddity like a state-owned commercial channel, where they would have had the experience of the darker side of television — and just enough freedom to mock it.

An interesting documentary on the origin of Max and his various television shows:

To buy the original show (only available on VHS:

To buy the American Series on DVD:

A TO Z REVIEWS

 

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