Max Headroom is the “computer animated” TV host of the 1985 UK music video series The Max Headroom Show, the 1985 telemovie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, and the 1979 science fiction series Max Headroom.
Air quotes because he’s not computer animated, he’s actor Matt Frewer with bits of latex and foam stuck to his face. Computer animation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute in 1985, and Victorian chimney-sweeper logic kicked in: “we could theoretically solve this problem with technology, but it’s cheaper to send an eight-year-old boy up the flue.” Some people bemoan that computers are stealing our jobs. Max Headroom is a reminder that we once stole theirs.
Max’s character is jarring and wrong, stuttering and repeating himself while reeling off Dangerfield-esque one-liners. The idea is that he’s a human consciousness digitized imperfectly – a broken half-a-human. You can’t be at ease while watching him, it’s like eating dinner off a plate with a huge crack in it, and this made him unforgettable. He is a vivid example of glitching and ugliness used for artistic effect (note the similar stuttering used in Paul Hardcastle’s “19”).
Max is a one-joke character, but the joke was heard all over the world. He’s widely parodied. There’s a Hello Kitty aspect to Max: everyone recognizes the character, but often they aren’t sure where he’s from or when they first saw him. For some, it was the New Coke commercial; for others, Max Headroom just exists, floating freely in conceptual ether. Despite this, the character was created out of a very specific set of circumstances.
In 1981, video killed the radio star, and stations such as MTV needed hosts to talk between records and sell products. Unlike the radio hosts of the past (who were heard but not seen), video jockeys needed to look attractive (or at least interesting). They couldn’t, for example, be a man “shaped like whatever container you pour him into” (in Patrice O’Neal’s immortal roast of chubby radio host Jim Norton).
While most stations wanted their hosts to be hip, the UK’s Channel 4 took a different path and made their host a weird, uncool goober. Max Headroom won’t ever become lame: he’s already maximally lame. He won’t lose dignity when he plugs a sponsored product: he never had any to begin with. Rock stars will want to talk to him: he’ll made even the most incompetent cokehead seem lucid.
Nonetheless, it’s not the music video show that made Max Headroom famous. I don’t know when it occurred to Channel 4 that the character would work for a character-driven drama, but the result was an interesting cyberpunk film that owes a lot to Blade Runner and Brazil, although made for far less money.
The plot takes place in England of the very near future, which could be described as “Thatcherism, but more”. London is as black and filthy as the inside of a cancerous lung. Thugs lurk in the shadows, ready to kidnap you and sell your organs to body banks. Industry is ferocious, a terrifying machine running on a fuel of human lives. There are televisions everywhere, blaring demented idiocy.
The plot involves entertainment conglomerate Channel 23, who have invented a new form of TV ad called the “Blipvert”. Traditional 30-second ads annoy viewers and cause them to change the channel, but Blipverts allow ads to be compressed into a few seconds of high-intensity audiovisual stimulation. Ratings are through the roof. However, some people experience a side effect: they explode.
There’s some effective (and funny) satire where we see Channel 23 execs trying to defend Blipverts. Surely some percentage of the population can be expected to randomly explode, right? It’s not statistically significant. Anyway, if you explode after watching an ad, isn’t it ultimately your fault? We’re probably supposed to remember how tobacco companies responded when their products were revealed as dangerous. Modern viewers will also think about oil companies and climate change.
Regardless, star reporter Edison Carter gets “too close to the truth”, and suffers a tragic motorcycle accident. However, he’s supposed to appear on air later that day, and a clumsy, bungled attempt to digitize Carter’s brain results in an odd lifeform that immediately utters the words “Max Headroom”, because that was the final thing Carter saw before crashing. Writer George Stone says British firms spent millions of pounds relabeling the “Max Headroom” signs in public garages to “Maximum Height”, due to association with the character. There’s a chance that Max Headroom actually cost Britain more money than it made.
The movie is not a high budget one. Its portrayal of futuristic London as an industrial wasteland is a concession to a lack of money (in a fortunate stroke of luck, they were able to shoot in Beckton Gasworks, where Stanley Kubrick filmed certain scenes of Full Metal Jacket). But it nails the things that are cheap: acting, and tone. A grungy and effective mood soon appears. The story’s confusing and hard to follow, but it’s never boring.
The camera-work has an aggressive, edge-pushing quality that’s as jarring as Max Headroom himself. For example, consider the alarming way the villainous Channel 23 head Grossman is framed. Sharply underlit, and distorted by bubbled lensing in a way that emphasises actor Nickolas Grace’s exotropia. He looks terrifying, an all-seeing one-man Panopticon.
Max Headroom himself doesn’t do a lot in the movie. The same holds true for the American TV series: the episodes explore some science fiction conceit related to capitalism and media (a reality TV show is attracting viewers through subliminal mind control, or something), and Max serves as a framing device. But isn’t that what a VJ is supposed to do? Introduce stuff, and get out of the way?
It’s poetic to make Max Headroom impotent and powerless, a talking head. People like Edison Carter and Theora got to have all the fun, running around and solving crimes. Max is frozen in place, transfixed like a glitching, jittery butterfly on a pin, telling his idiotic jokes and becoming more outdated day by day. Matt Frewer was wont to complain about how annoying his makeup and prosthetics were (“like being on the inside of a giant tennis ball”), but the character itself was just as restricted.
Video hosts are passive, powerless ciphers, introducing the action without ever being a part of it. They’re like eunuchs guarding the sultan’s harem – yes, they know all about the deed, but they’ll never do it for themselves. It’s no surprise that the career breeds dissatisfaction, and a search for something more.