So apparently Universal wants to remake David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” with a script by Ehren Kruger under the direction of Adam Berg.
Who knows: Kruger’s screenplay could be a revelation. Berg’s direction might be brilliant. And the finished film could be fantastic. Whether it’s terrible or terrific, though, a “Videodrome” remake is also totally unnecessary.
There’s really only one creatively valid reason to remake a movie: to update something that has aged out of its cultural relevance (there are plenty of financially valid reasons, although I’m not sure they apply in this case; according to Box Office Mojo, the original “Videodrome” made just $2.1 million dollars in an original domestic release that lasted less than two weeks). But as anyone who has seen it recently will tell you, “Videodrome” actually grows more relevant with each passing year. Some of the special effects look a little dodgy, and certainly the concept of a weird local cable channel and its cancerous Betamax tapes feels fairly antiquated. But the larger ideas of “Videodrome” — the commingling of man and machine, the dehumanizing impact of technological communication devices, the rise of sadistically violent entertainment — reflect the world of 2012 just as effectively as they did the world of 1983.
We see that world through the eyes of Max Renn (James Woods) the president of a podunk Toronto cable channel. Without the resources of the major networks, Renn competes with his bigger rivals by offering the sort of edgy entertainment others won’t touch. In his quest to find the latest and greatest ratings-grabbing sleaze he stumbles across a mysterious program about a woman getting beaten and abused in a strange red room by anonymous men. The program is revolting; Renn is intrigued. He calls it “Videodrome.” We’d probably call it “torture porn.”
Renn’s quest to find Videodrome’s source leads him to a so-called “media prophet” named Brian O’Blivion who lives solely as a face on television screens. O’Blivion’s virtual presence is Cronenberg’s greatest and most visionary creation. His appearance anticipates the rise of talking head dominated cable news networks, and his pronouncements about the future of technology are eerily prescient. For example, this sermon delivered from his bully pulpit — a cable TV show:
“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye. That’s why I refused to appear on television, except on television. Of course, O’Blivion was not the name I was born with. That’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.”
Cronenberg made “Videodrome” a decade before anyone knew what the Internet was, but O’Blivion’s “television name” suggests the rise of Internet avatars, just as his desire to live solely on television — and his later comment that “Television is reality, and reality is less than television” — suggests my generation’s obsession with reality TV. O’Blivion — or maybe Cronenberg — believed we were headed toward a future where television screens would dominate our landscape and our architecture. As I write this blog post on my laptop while watching “Videodrome” on a flat-screen television while occasionally glancing at my iPhone, I can’t help but think that future is already here.
Even beyond its brilliant subtext, “Videodrome” still has a lot to offer: vivid performances from Woods and Harry, weird, febrile special effects makeup by Rick Baker, the sickening and unforgettable sight of James Woods sticking a gun inside a vagina that opens on his abdomen — the first in a series of mutations Renn calls “The New Flesh.” In other words, the film is a masterpiece, about as perfect as any science-fiction film of the last fifty years.
Could it be improved upon? I guess it’s possible; would “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather” be improved by modern versions? The new “Videodrome”might be remarkable, but that won’t make it any less redundant. Long live the old new flesh.
This essay is based on notes from a video piece I made for “Ebert Presents at the Movies.”