Life in the Big City: Max Headroom and Metropolis

The visual similarity between Max Headroom and Blade Runneris not accidental.  Early on, in the development of the UK telefilm and later reshot for the American pilot andsubsequent episodes, the decision was made to emulate the dark, gritty, cold,urban landscape of the Ridley Scott film which has become the standard image ofwhat a cyberpunk dystopia should look like. But what is generally not discussed in the influences for Max Headroom is that this visual look isnot original to Blade Runner. Infact, there are several references that Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner was heavily inspired by the1927 film Metropolis.[1]

The establishing shots for Max Headroom always involve a long shot of a city skyline thatseems to be perpetually shrouded in night, or at least, near darkness.  The only lights visible are those of theoccasional streetlamp and the garish neon of the buildings and billboards.  The shot is dominated by the Network 23building, which towers over all the others, and is flanked closely by the localoffices of its largest corporate sponsor, Zik Zak Corp.

These closely resemble the exterior shots from Fritz Lang’ssilent masterpiece Metropolis. Thecity here is also dominated by the New Tower of Babel, the headquarters officesof Joh Fredersen, the “master of Metropolis.” It is from this tower that Fredersendirects 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, inall ways, in control.

While Metropolisis often cited as an influence on BladeRunner, I think a case can be made that Metropolisis a more direct influence on MaxHeadroom 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’ andthe ‘Have-Nots.’  In Metropolis, the Have-Nots live below ground and work the vastmachinery that keeps the city operating. If the workers fail in their duties,the machinery blows up and the city floods, creating widespread death anddestruction. The Haves live above ground enjoying sports and frolicking intheir ‘pleasure gardens.’  Themarginalized in Max Headroom live inan area known as the Fringes, where the people “eat what they can catch,”[2]live in ‘cardboard condos’ (improvised shelters) and yet we see workersconstantly welding for no clear purpose. And everywhere, there are televisionsets for people to watch. On the other hand, many who reside in the city properlive in an apartment complex called ‘Sybaris,’ which is derived from the nameof ancient Greek city known for its opulence and luxury.  In the city, the worst crime that can becommitted is credit fraud.

The Master of Metropolis is the de facto ruler of the city.His word is law.  There is no one personin the city of Max Headroom like JohFredersen, but government is in the hands of people sponsored by the networksand ‘elected’ through television ratings. And of course, behind the networks are the corporate sponsors directingnetwork policy, which then becomes public policy.

Metropolis isabout the quest to find a mediator between the ‘Head’ of Metropolis (JohFredersen) and the ‘Hands’ (the workers). That Mediator, we discover, is actually Freder Fredersen, Joh’sson.  In a sense, ace telejournalistEdison Carter, star of Network 23 and the source of Max Headroom’s personality and memories, is the Mediator betweenthe Network and the denizens of the Fringes. He is often at work in theFringes, highlighting the people’s plights and hopefully making those who livewithin the city proper and enjoy its comforts that those comforts are notuniversal.  He is willing to challengethe establishment on behalf of those who have no voice. He is allowed to beconfrontational even to the point of biting the hand that feeds him, so tospeak, because he generates high ratings for the Network, and ratings meanrevenue.
Metropolis and Max Headroom still speak to us eventoday. Just a few months ago, the US saw the rise of the Occupy Movement thatsought to bring attention to the disparity between the corporate executives whoseem to have control of all the resources in the country and have politiciansin their back pocket, and those who struggle to make ends meet. The videoimages of various police departments evicting ‘Occupiers’ reminded me of scenesfrom Max Headroom of the people ofthe Fringes being confronted by the Metrocops.[3]

As a Christian, I understand how many of my fellow believersstruggle with the issues before us.  Weget that there needs to be incentive for people to work hard and achieve. Wheneveryone is financially ‘equal,’ the incentive goes away and nobody wins.  But at the same time we are called to carefor the needy and hurting and lost and alone. We may not have actual Fringes like in Max Headroom, but we have peoplewho live on the fringes of society and are very often overlooked in our driveto consume more and more. What I find disturbing is some Christians who labelthemselves as conservative seeking to distance themselves from Jesus’ mandateto serve ‘the least of these,’ meaning those naked, hungry sick and imprisoned[4],by producing a translation of the Bible that minimizes this and otherscriptural imperatives to treat the poor and disenfranchised with at least thesame dignity as you would the owner of a Fortune 500 company.  It is true that Jesus did not heal every onethat was sick, nor materially bless everyone who came to Him, but He did chargeHis followers with following his example and bless those that we could, and notjustify our inability or unwillingness to do so. Yes, it’s also true that Jesus said we would never eliminate poverty[5],but Christians need to stand with the hurting, lost and lonely just as surelyas their Master did, just as surely as Edison Carter stood with the residentsof the Fringe.

It is too easy for people, Believers and non-, to desire tocavort in the Pleasure Gardens of Metropolis,or to establish residency in the Sybaris of MaxHeadroom, but may we ever put that aside that we may care for those on thefringes.

[2]This is a quote from one of the episodes and there is visual evidence withstreet vendors selling what appear to be rats on a stick in another episode.
[3]Although, such a scene never actually occurred in the series. I’m not sure howit would have happened, as the official public policy seems to be to provideTVs to the masses to keep them mollified.
[4]Matthew 25:31-46
[5]Mark 14:7

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