Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future DVD Review

  • Title:  Max Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future
  • Original Network:  ABC (US)
  • Original Airdate:  1987 – 1988
  • Cast:  Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, W. Morgan Sheppard, Concetta Tomei
  • DVD Format:  3-4 episodes per disc, 5 discs total (final disc is special features only)
  • Number of Episodes:  14

Max Headroom is an  excellent SF program, that was way ahead of its time. This program originally aired when night time soaps like Dallas and Falcon Crest were popular, as were formula action series such as The A-Team, MacGyver, Miami Vice, and Magnum, PI. Max Headroom was completely different. Following the adventures of a crusading, caring tele-journalist and his “computerized” alter-ego in a dystopian future – each episode addressed futuristic issues that seem even more relevant now than then. The look of the show mixed the old and the new – antique typewriter keyboards hooked up to sophisticated computer screens. The effect of the mix was that nothing was shiny and new, everything was old, dirty, and re-used. In one episode, Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) tries to get some information from Sully in the “Fringes” (the bad section of the sprawling metropolis) who remarks, “Nobody makes nothin’ new anymore. We just recycle the old ones.” – He’s specifically talking about cars, but it seems to apply to everything.

Corporations rule this world, and television is everywhere – taking over every aspect of life. Not only is the Japanese Corporation, Zik-Zac the top advertiser and client of Network 23 (where Edison works) – but at one point they actually manipulate a crash in Network 23 stock – a comment on Sony’s acquisition of ABC at the time the series was made. In the world of Max Headroom, television is how people vote, educate their children, shop, attend church, are entertained, and how people are informed. Television is literally everywhere, even in fancy restraurants – and the sets cannot even be turned off. There is also no video tapes, no movie theaters, no books, and no other form of entertainment – just television.

The show commented on television network politics, instant ratings, violent extreme sports, genetic engineering, pervasive private security, televangelists, censorship, and consumerism. And always, always, always – the series mocked the very medium that created it, which is why it didn’t last. Max Headroom predicted many things we now find commonplace, more if you substitute the word “computer” for “television”. For example, Edison and Theora both carry “credit tubes” – these are used to make all payments, as ID to enter Network 23 or any place that requires it, even as the way to unlock their (respective) apartment doors. These days it’s becoming very common for people to not carry cash or checkbooks but to pay for everything with debit or even credit cards. Both Google and Apple have launched payment apps so that in the US, people can start to pay for things using their cell phones (something that’s been common in Europe for years). Personal security companies are creating “smart home apps” that allow you to do everything from program the optimal temperature to lock and unlock the front door. Is it hard to imagine a time when your smartphone is all you need to carry and it becomes the device for personal ID, unlocking doors, and making all payments?

In the episode, “Lessons” (or Project:  Fringes Literacy) it’s revealed that free public education no longer exists – and well-to-do parents pay for subscription paid educational TV. In the episode, Edison meets a Blank (non-registered) person whom the cops think is pirating educational TV tapes. In reality, she’s printing illegal books to teach children in the Fringes how to read. That is also the episode that takes place during the annual “Sky Clearance” festival – where old satellites are shot down to make room for new ones. Today, Earth’s orbit is getting so full of various pieces of space junk, the idea of cleaning it up by destroying bigger chunks isn’t that far-fetched.

Whereas, in the episode, “Dieties” (Vu Age Televangelists) it’s revealed traditional religions more-or-less no longer exist, and have been replaced by Televangelists hosting their own TV religious hours.  Even movie theaters are gone, as shown in the episode, “Dream Thieves”, when Edison does a brief nostalgia piece at a worn out, empty theater – the blanks and fringers he interviews, man-on-the-street style don’t even know what a movie or movie theater is.

Max Headroom was an intelligent, smart, show. The dialogue was frequently snappy and ironic. The characters were great, and had excellent relationships with each other. It was a show that called attention to being television – much of it took place in the newsroom control center, where Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) would decide what stories air and what don’t (though he could be over-ruled by the Network 23 board of directors, or even by the Censor computer.) The room was filled with multiple TV screens, smoke, and streaky blue lighting. Many episodes would start or end with Edison’s “What I Want to Know” program – but at times, rather than filling the screen and being the focus for the audience, it would play in the background, and other characters would talk over what Edison was saying – just as today, TVs play in the background all the time and no one pays attention to what is being aired.

The DVDs in this set look fantastic – the copy quality is very good, and the episodes have been cleaned-up and restored beautifully.

I highly recommend this show. If you haven’t seen it, rent or buy the series on DVD.  If you like Cyberpunk, or dystopian SF – this show is for you.

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The Prestige

  • Title:  The Prestige
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date 2006
  • Studio:  Touchstone, Warner Brothers
  • Genres:  Drama, SF, Historical
  • Cast:  Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Mark Ryan, William Morgan Sheppard
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  Blu-Ray, R1

“But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back.  That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call… The Prestige.” – Mr. Cutter, narrating

“I love you.” – Alfred Borden
“Not today.  Well, some days it’s not true, and today you don’t mean it.  Maybe today you’re more in love with magic than me.  I like being able to tell the difference, it makes the days it is true mean something.” – Sarah Borden

“I don’t want to kill doves.” – Robert Angier
“Then stay off stage.  You’re a magician not a wizard.  You gotta’ get your hands dirty if you’re going to achieve the impossible.” – Mr. Cutter

“I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.” – Nikola Tesla

“The truly extra-ordinary is not permitted in science and industry.  Perhaps, you’ll find more luck in your field – where people are happy to be mystified.” – Tesla

The Prestige is a film about envy, jealousy, and obsession. But rather than jealousy over someone else’s relationship with a third person; or obsession with a person, The Prestige is about professional jealousy and obsession with an idea. Add to that it’s unusual structure, and it’s a fascinating film, that’s intriguing to watch.

This is the story of two stage magicians in the 1890s. They start off as friends, working with an ingenue (or magic trick designer) and a female magician (Julia, played by Piper Perabo) who is married to one of them (Angiers, played by Hugh Jackman). Bordan (Bale) seems to be jealous of Angiers relationship with his wife, though this is not obviously stated. And when Julia dies performing a water-tank trick, after Bordan tied her hands – Angiers becomes angry and blames Bordan for the accident. However, this definitely doesn’t become your cut-and-dried “you killed my wife – I’m going to get revenge” film. Even by the end of the film, we don’t really know if Bordan deliberately tied the wrong knot or if it really was an accident. However, the death of Julia is the spark that turns a friendship into a rivalry – and then into professional jealousy, and finally into obsession. As the film unfolds Angiers and Bordan both one-up each other, and both simply do horrible things to each other – physically harming each other, undercutting each other’s stage acts, and simply just not letting the rivalry rest but escalating it with each act of the film.

The structure of the film is also different.  It starts with the end, then tells the story through a series of interweaving flashbacks that tell the story in short scenes that not only move forward and back in time, but change point of view as well. The film begins with Angiers dying in a stage magician’s trick and Bordan being arrested and charged with his murder. The flashbacks explain their history, their rivalry, and Angiers growing obsession with Bordan’s trick:  The Transported Man. Angiers follows his obsession to Colorado where he meets Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis), and convinces them to build a special machine for him. Angiers both gets what he wants and gets much more than he bargained for. But, as the story unfolds – and different parts of the story are told first from Angiers point of view and then from Bordan’s, the audience learns more and more about these characters – the doomed characters.

Because the flashbacks are interweaving, as an audience member, not only is one forced to pay very close attention in order to follow the film – but one is also, constantly rearranging the scenes in one’s head. Especially the first time I watched this film, as I watched it, I found myself thinking, “OK, so this goes before that, and this goes before that, etc.”  But unlike other films with a lot of editing and scenes that aren’t presented in chronological order – with The Prestige, that the film’s story is essentially presented in reverse order before returning to the present and then again turning on a dime, everything in the story is crystal clear.  You will not be confused by the story – at all, once you get used to the style and concentrate on the plot.

I’m determined to not spoil this excellent film, but it is also very dark and even somewhat disturbing. To explain just what is going on, and how, would destroy the experience of seeing this film.  It’s excellent, with an excellent cast, incredible direction, and it’s very thought-provoking. However, it is very, very dark.  I mean, I’ve seen film noir before, but the final implications of this film really push the envelope into disturbing territory. Oh, and by disturbing – I do not in any way mean “gross” or bloody, or any of the typical tropes of horror. I wouldn’t even call this a horror film. Do not avoid this film simply because of a prejudice against horror – that is not what it is at all.

Recommendation:   See it
Rating:  5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Inception