Though media and technology have advanced, the themes that David Cronenberg chooses to focus on in his 1983 film Videodrome have not only remained relevant, but they seem more prescient. The director eyes the relations between humanity and the video world in the sci-fi body
Though media and technology have advanced, the themes that David Cronenberg chooses to focus on in his 1983 film Videodrome have not only remained relevant, but they seem more prescient. The director eyes the relations between humanity and the video world in the sci-fi body horror film where reality is not what it seems, or perhaps, due to our gorging on overstimulating entertainment, our perception has changed into something frightening and beyond control. Or maybe others are controlling us, with multiple forces tugging on us here and there.
Cronenberg drops us into the seamy world of television broadcasting which Channel 83 executive Max Renn (James Woods) navigates as he receives a morning brief via video. We instantly see he lives an untidy life, but he’s still committed to looking for the next shocking thing to host on his channel. He’s tired of the soft but still scandalous fare that is scouted for programming. He doesn’t know how much his life, or at least his mind, will change when he’s introduced to Videodrome. This possibly pirate broadcast features material beyond the tasteless, verging to the illegal. However, Max soon learns that once viewed, you become part of Videodrome and Videodrome becomes part of you, perhaps to fatal consequence.
While critics praised the film, the material was likely too weird and extreme for general audiences. Budgeted just under six million dollars, the film failed to recoup its expenses. Still, the resonant themes combined with the compelling acting of the leads and the imaginative visual effects has turned Videodrome into a true cult classic. Often, people assign that identifier to any movie that gets an updated media release. How can a film that focuses on the dead media of VHS say anything to a world of multiple streaming options?
Max Renn is an unsavory character, but Cronenberg doesn’t present him as fully unlikeable. Supposedly he has no limits, but even he’s taken aback by the actions of the mysterious Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), even as he’s further drawn into seductive visuals of Videodrome. Nicki, introduced to Max on a hosted debate/discussion, reveals herself to be a woman of contradictory layers. Seemingly, she’s the voice of reflection concerning whether society has become overstimulated by the media landscape, but she reveals herself to be a woman of masochistic impulses.
As the attraction of Videodrome draws her in, Max becomes the voice of hesitation. However, it’s too late, as Max learns that Videodrome is more than entertainment, Nicki is both more and less than she seems, and there are greater ideological forces wanting use Videodrome to transform society. Max Renn, as an audience surrogate, is confident in knowing who he is at the start but uncertain of what’s physically tangible and mentally possible by the conclusion.
What most would remember about Videodrome are the odd and often disturbing visual effects. In one bizarre scene, a cold inanimate television set becomes a stirring fleshy object, inviting intimacy with Max. Is it alive, or is it part of Max’s increasingly off sense of reality? Even Max himself becomes an object of mutation as orifices appear without prompting and technology merges with his body. Media prophet Dr. O’Blivion speaks of “The New Flesh.” Max, whether he wants to or not, becomes the latest subject of media/technology/body evolution. At the end you may not understand fully what you’ve seen. The images, being both realistic in composition and fantastic in their presentation, will leave an impression.
Composer Howard Shore’s stylistic choice of music is interesting. He’s known for writing bombastic scores whether working with Cronenberg or with other directors. This time he decided for a more minimalistic approach. Though still utilizing traditional instrumentation, he has overlayed it with synthesizer tones. Rather than dramatic highs and lows, there’s a pulsating droning that occasionally falls away for a plangent flourish of strings. The music serves the film, and there’s nothing incorrect about the placement in the scenes. However, the synthesized orchestra may disconcert the listener. Possibly that was Cronenberg’s and Shore’s intention, but it also likely means for most people that this score won’t be on listening cycle outside the film, unlike other science fiction films and horror films of the 1980s.
Finally, the story development leads to two conclusions that may seem contradictory. First, one can appreciate the various themes that Cronenberg throws to the audience. What are the effects of media on humanity, especially involving extreme content; can one lose touch on reality as one delves further into video world; will increasing immersion in technology mutate us into something beyond what we know is the normal expedience?
However, the second conclusion is tangent to the first. There may have been a surfeit of themes to develop within the film’s running time to the viewer’s satisfaction. By the end, all gives way to Max becoming “The New Flesh” through a series of action sequences. We’re not even sure if he has agency in doing so. Cronenberg’s intentions for Max’s outcome may have influenced his plotting. That still might not be enough for the viewer who feels there’s an unbalanced ratio of questions to answers.
Now that we’ve been in the internet age for decades, Videodrome has the ostensible appearance of quaintness. For many, however, the digital world increasingly has taken the place of reality. This film invites us to reflect on who or what controls what or who as technology, especially as a means of entertainment, becomes ever more intertwined with humanity. Cronenberg presents ideas that he might not fully flesh out. Still, having something to mull over is better than just relying on visual effects to capture your audience’s attention.