The establishing shots for Max Headroom always involve a long shot of a city skyline that seems to be perpetually shrouded in night, or at least, near darkness. The only lights visible are those of the occasional streetlamp and the garish neon of the buildings and billboards. The shot is dominated by the Network 23 building, which towers over all the others, and is flanked closely by the local offices of its largest corporate sponsor, Zik Zak Corp.
These closely resemble the exterior shots from Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis. The city here is also dominated by the New Tower of Babel, the headquarters offices of Joh Fredersen, the “master of Metropolis.” It is from this tower that Fredersen directs all activity of the city, and he is truly its master: he is efficient, ruthless and scheming, and will stop at nothing to ensure that he remains, in all ways, in control.
While Metropolisis often cited as an influence on Blade Runner, I think a case can be made that Metropolis is a more direct influence on Max Headroom not only visually but thematically as well.
The visual similarities have already been noted. Thematically, both feature a world with sharp divides between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots.’ In Metropolis, the Have-Nots live below ground and work the vast machinery that keeps the city operating. If the workers fail in their duties, the machinery blows up and the city floods, creating widespread death and destruction. The Haves live above ground enjoying sports and frolicking in their ‘pleasure gardens.’ The marginalized in Max Headroom live in an area known as the Fringes, where the people “eat what they can catch,”live in ‘cardboard condos’ (improvised shelters) and yet we see workers constantly welding for no clear purpose. And everywhere, there are television sets for people to watch. On the other hand, many who reside in the city proper live in an apartment complex called ‘Sybaris,’ which is derived from the name of ancient Greek city known for its opulence and luxury. In the city, the worst crime that can be committed is credit fraud.
The Master of Metropolis is the de facto ruler of the city. His word is law. There is no one person in the city of Max Headroom like Joh Fredersen, but government is in the hands of people sponsored by the networks and ‘elected’ through television ratings. And of course, behind the networks are the corporate sponsors directing network policy, which then becomes public policy.
Metropolis is about the quest to find a mediator between the ‘Head’ of Metropolis (Joh Fredersen) and the ‘Hands’ (the workers). That Mediator, we discover, is actually Freder Fredersen, Joh’s son. In a sense, ace telejournalist Edison Carter, star of Network 23 and the source of Max Headroom’s personality and memories, is the Mediator between the Network and the denizens of the Fringes. He is often at work in the Fringes, highlighting the people’s plights and hopefully making those who live within the city proper and enjoy its comforts aware that those comforts are not universal. He is willing to challenge the establishment on behalf of those who have no voice. He is allowed to be confrontational even to the point of biting the hand that feeds him, so to speak, because he generates high ratings for the Network, and ratings mean revenue.
Metropolis and Max Headroom still speak to us eventoday. Just a few months ago, the US saw the rise of the Occupy Movement that sought to bring attention to the disparity between the corporate executives who seem to have control of all the resources in the country and have politicians in their back pocket, and those who struggle to make ends meet. The video images of various police departments evicting ‘Occupiers’ reminded me of scenes from Max Headroom of the people of the Fringes being confronted by the Metrocops.
As a Christian, I understand how many of my fellow believers struggle with the issues before us. We get that there needs to be incentive for people to work hard and achieve. When everyone is financially ‘equal,’ the incentive goes away and nobody wins. But at the same time we are called to care for the needy and hurting and lost and alone. We may not have actual Fringes like in Max Headroom, but we have people who live on the fringes of society and are very often overlooked in our drive to consume more and more. What I find disturbing is some Christians who label themselves as conservative seeking to distance themselves from Jesus’ mandate to serve ‘the least of these,’ meaning those naked, hungry sick and imprisoned,by producing a translation of the Bible that minimizes this and other scriptural imperatives to treat the poor and disenfranchised with at least the same dignity as you would the owner of a Fortune 500 company. It is true that Jesus did not heal every one that was sick, nor materially bless everyone who came to Him, but He did charge His followers with following His example and bless those that we could, and not justify our inability or unwillingness to do so. Yes, it’s also true that Jesus said we would never eliminate poverty,but Christians need to stand with the hurting, lost and lonely just as surely as their Master did, just as surely as Edison Carter stood with the residents of the Fringe
It is too easy for people, Believers and non-, to desire to cavort in the Pleasure Gardens of Metropolis, or to establish residency in the Sybaris of Max Headroom, but may we ever put that aside that we may care for those on the fringes.