Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985) — Hacking an ’80s icon

“You’re looking at the future, Mr. Grossman: People translated as data.”

Justin’s rating: For the record, I’ve always found this character to be totally creepy.

Justin’s review: Out of all of the icons and characters that the 1980s produced, perhaps none was as strange nor as… ’80s… as Max Headroom. The jittering, stuttering computer character (actually actor Matt Fewer under a lot of prosthetics) seemed to capture the attention of the public for a few years, going so far as to influence the electronic waiters of Back to the Future Part II’s “CafĂ© ’80s.”

But where did this phenomenon actually begin? That was a question that I wanted to answer for myself, and after a little bit of Wikipedia hiking, I found myself watching its origin in the 1985 cyberpunk TV flick Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. I certainly didn’t know that the British had created this icon, nor that an hour-long movie eventually spawned a show that ran in 1987 and 1988.

Some time into the future — perhaps about 20 minutes or so — Network 23 news reporter Edison Carter (Frewer) stumbles upon a story that involves people spontaneously, um, exploding. With the help of his hacker friend Theora (Amanda Pays), Edison discovers that his own network has been developing compressed advertisements called “blipverts” that sometimes cause people’s nervous systems to overload.

Discovered, Edison flees the station and is taken captive by an enemy hacker and the evil corporate suits trying to repress the story. The bad hacker gets the bright idea of faking Edison’s presence at the station with a computerized character, but that doesn’t go so well. This “Max Headroom” (named for the low clearance bar that Edison hit while trying to escape) goes a little berserk and develops a life and personality of his own. Meanwhile, Edison narrowly avoids being harvested for human parts and helps to bring the story to the public light.

20 Minutes into the Future certainly wasn’t anything I expected. I really thought this would be more of a vehicle for a wisecracking character, but Max Headroom himself is only in the last quarter of the film and isn’t the main focus. I think what they were trying to go for here was a dystopian cyberpunk story and stumbled upon surprising success with this side creation.

I still think that Max Headroom’s glitchy nature bugs me on some subconscious level and the story here isn’t much more than a pilot plot for a TV show, but I was definitely impressed with how cool of a setting that they created. From computer graphics to a hacker culture to punks driving through an industrial wasteland to the prominence of hard technology, Max Headroom created a world that wasn’t really the norm for scifi TV or movies back then (or, honestly, even now).

If nothing else, seeing this scratched the itch of my curiosity. And besides, you can’t argue that this film doesn’t deserve a place of honor on this site!

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