Hallucinations aren’t sci-fi. They really exist. And in order for the allegorical point in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome to be driven home, we must either have his views depicted as a realistic metaphor or an outlandish one–not one that fuses the two together. Not real enough to relate to, nor fake enough to see as a metaphor. If we can’t witness the real life consequence, how can we care? And if the “sci-fi” visuals we’re witnessing are merely a realistic instance taking place in a realistic world–only unreal to the main character, even though conveyed as such to us–then how can we know what the real consequence is anyway?
We follow Max (James Woods), the president of a Toronto-based UHF television network known for their sleazy content. Feeling like his audience is becoming jaded by their current lineup of softcore pornographic films, he searches for something a little more real. Working with a media pirate, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), to intercept television broadcasts from all over the world using an unauthorized satellite dish, Max stumbles upon a mysterious program called Videodrome.
This strange show always takes place in the same room and depicts anonymous “contestants” being tortured or killed by even-more-anonymous masked men. Max eventually discovers that what he’s seeing on screen isn’t dramatized, but real. And the contestants are actual people getting killed. But by the time he tries to put a stop to it, the folks behind Videodrome have already commandeered his mind, hypnotizing him with their signals. Max heads down a rabbit hole of mystery as he uncovers the sinister origins and purpose of Videodrome. A sordid man, now our protagonist, becomes the relative good guy amidst an even worse evil.
Early on, events take place in an ambiguous fashion, assuming we stay along for the ride. And luckily, there’s enough semblance of a plot to hold us over until things do get clarified.
Depicting the horror of television in the ’80s is like making a movie on the horrors of rock and roll in the ’50s. That fear has run its course, as we realize the repercussions weren’t all that catastrophic.
Though, Videodrome forces us to apply its theories to newer technologies, such as the internet. But if we all survived the advent of TV, and even the eventual boom, then we can likely survive that of a more advanced medium. However, when will the subliminal mind control end? Did television build its way up to the internet, which built its way up to smart phones, which may eventually build its way to something worse and worse? And is it all happening so gradually that we fail to notice?
Where John Carpenter’s They Live shows how society is controlled by advertisements and commercialism, Videodrome takes the approach of showing how we’ve become more and more desensitized to things like sex and violence. Yet Cronenberg still doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope of either. We get some great lines, like, “public life on television is more real than private life in the flesh.” But ultimately these truisms come off as pretentious and meaningless platitudes from a filmmaker who doesn’t even heed his own warnings.
Videodrome takes a misanthropic look at the world, but with relative hopefulness. Then eventually that hopefulness dies and we’re left with something really depressing. The film holds commentary on technology and how it can engross our minds and manipulate our psyches. How television, or more so the internet and smart phones nowadays, can produce hypnotizing side effects that ultimately evolve human culture and society as a whole.
Cronenberg has some very interesting things to say. However, my issues aren’t with his ideas, but with how his presentation of those ideas aren’t as effective as they could be. As I said, using hallucinations to prove his points only divorces us from them.
We see images such as the bad guys inserting a tape into a slot in Max’s stomach, or wires connecting Max’s hand to his gun as the two fuse themselves as one, and these images would be all well and good if they had some sort of reason for happening. Instead, it’s all just part of Max’s hallucination, and this bizarre body-horror we’re witnessing isn’t even actually happening in the film universe either–only in Max’s head. It plays as a metaphor for consumption and technological hypnotism. We aren’t sure what’s real or what’s a hallucination. When we can’t see the real world side effects of technology–only Max’s interpretation–we can’t attach ourselves to the film’s message. Thus, we can’t see the real world side effects of his condition. Or we aren’t sure what the real world side effects actually are. He could be hallucinating the entire thing. If so, then who cares? Cronenberg rarely separates us from Max’s perspective. But in order to witness any consequences, we must also be able to see what really happens and apply it to our own lives.
I’m really on board with the inventive visuals and psycho-tech effects, but I just wish the premise was more accessible and organized. The film conveys a fairly simple premise in a complicated and byzantine way. Absorbed in its own ideas, Videodrome ends up becoming as self-important as the topics it criticizes.