The media is a major part of life now. Television shows are everywhere and the media has a bigger than ever influence on what we think, do, say, buy, and like. Film has been exploring the influence of this media and TV culture for years, even before television had such a great impact on everyday life. These are ten films that brilliantly explore the influence of TV culture on society.
The Running Man (1987)
The Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Running Man is something of a cult classic. Schwarzenegger himself plays the lead character, a police officer by the name of Ben Richards. He is wrongly framed for the massacre of innocent civilians. In this dystopian future, the worst criminals in the nation are forced to participate in a live game show “The Running Man” in which they are thrown into a dismal “stadium” and forced to fight to the death with assassins who are beloved by viewers. If the “running man” survives, then he is to be released and rewarded, but if not, he is dead.
The show is broadcast live and audiences are rabid about it. They have favorite assassins, root for the running men to die, and place bets non-stop as to who will kill them, how and when. Ben Richards, of course, is smarter than all the rest and manages to fight back in an unprecedented way. The film, though an action movie, has a deeper underlying message about the dehumanizing effect of television and the media in general. Made in 1987, it was before the big reality TV movement giving it an even more poignant feel when watching it today.
Perhaps the be all and end all of movies about the effects of television on society, Network is still a powerful and moving film. It all starts when a TV news anchor by the name of Howard Beale learns that he will be losing his job. So that night on the air, in front of live audiences, he announces that he is going to kill himself on television for the world to see. And thus ensues the madness. He begins ranting and raving on the air, and what he says is so powerful and so moving he ends up becoming something of a messiah to the public who watches him.
This is the first film that really addresses the impact that television has on the viewers and those in front of the camera. Beale becomes an icon, revered and followed for a time. The television studio pounces on it as a golden opportunity, not caring so much about what he says, but that people are listening and watching. In the end, Beale’s message loses popularity (though is still in many ways meaningful and poignant), and he pays the ultimate price. The film is at once dark and brilliant and is a must-see for anyone.
David Cronenberg is the king of all things twisted and disturbing and VIdeodrome is no exception to this rule. The film revolves around Max Renn who is played by James Woods. Renn is a cable programmer who is less-than-pleasant to begin with. Then while watching TV he finds a channel that broadcasts disturbingly violent and torturous programming. Renn, of course, is fascinated and cannot tear his eyes away. He becomes obsessed. And through his obsessions, strange things start to occur.
The lines between television and reality begin to blur, and Renn cannot tell what is in his head and what is actually happening. In Renn’s attempts to find out what Videodrome really is and where it comes from, the movie sinks into more and more disturbing imagery and storylines, but the message is pretty clear. Television affects the brain, in both physical and psychological ways, and Cronenberg takes this idea to extremes you probably didn’t know existed.
The Truman Show (1998)
Perhaps Jim Carrey’s finest work, The Truman Show is about a man named Truman Burbank is literally a TV show. Unbeknownst to him, Truman’s entire life from childhood has been broadcast on television. His friends, family, even his love interests were all planted into his life to play their roles. It isn’t until he is an adult that he begins to find out the truth of his life and begins to rebel trying to seize control over his life.
This film took the idea of reality television to the furthest extreme. A person’s entire life was not only broadcast on television, but the person being watched by the world had no idea that it was happening. A precursor to the realities of the lack of privacy in the world, The Truman Show is equally funny, dramatic, and a powerful social commentary.
Pleasantville is a film that is all about breaking down the wall between reality and television. In this film, a brother and sister from the 1990’s are transported into the idyllic world of a 1950’s television show (Pleasantville, of course) by a magic remote control given to them by the cable guy. The world of the TV show is, of course, a perfect world. Everyone is happy, every problem is immediately solved, and life is predictable and pleasant.
The two teens who have been transported into TV land resist this perfect reality and slowly but surely they change it. Black and white becomes color, perfect becomes problematic, and reality seeps into the perfect world of television. Ultimately, the teens learn that the idyllic world is not so idyllic and that certain aspects of reality are actually better than the fantasy world. A look at television and escapism, Pleasantville is a fantastic film.
To Die For (1995)
To Die For is a film about a television weather girl, Suzanne Stone. She wants bigger and better things and will do just about anything for her shot at success and for a chance at television fame. She dreams of nothing else than being famous all over the world, and every move she makes in her life is calculated to do just that. Included in these strategic moves in her life is her marriage. She married a man with money who can support her in her dreams.
But she soon decides that her husband is holding her back. He wants a normal wife. He wants children and a family. He wants a loving relationship. So Suzanne manipulates two teenage boys and a girl into killing him, having an affair with one of them in the process. The power of television to skew priorities is the main undercurrent in this film and while it never achieved mainstream popularity for its dark content, it is a respectable film and makes you think.
Wag the Dog (1997)
Wag the Dog is about politics and the media. In an effort to cover up a presidential sex scandal, the White House hires outside parties (from the television industry, of course) to create a fake war to occupy television sets around the nation and to distract the public. This is satirical comedy at its best and Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive in this film. The exploration albeit comedic of the relationship between television media and politics is well-handled in this oft-underrated film.
The Hunger Games (2012)
While The Hunger Games isn’t necessarily directly about television culture, the entire idea of the game that the movie is named for deals directly with television and the media. In this case, the country is divided into twelve districts. Every year a young boy and girl from each district are chosen to participate in the annual Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a live-broadcast program in which these children fight to the death, with only one to survive out of all 24 contestants.
Katniss Everdeen, the female tribute from District 12 is a strong fighter and seeks nothing more than to survive and to maintain her humanity in the process. Her struggles and strife before the games when she volunteers to take her sister’s place to her struggles to survive and protect those she cares for in the Games is broadcast for the nation to see. In fact, it is required viewing, to remind the nation that the Capital is in control and this is the punishment for rebellion, a death-match between children. Though the story extends beyond the television media, the power of media to control populations is thematically front and center. A brilliant film with a sequel and two more to come, this is a must-see film.
Broadcast News (1987)
Broadcast News is a comedic look at the television news industry. There are two male newsmen, one who is an anchorman and one who worked behind the scenes, and a female producer, so of course all sorts of romantic entanglements ensue. This film is not the most poignant on the list, but it is classic and funny and looks at the superficiality of the television news industry. While Albert Brooks’ character in the film is more talented that the anchor played by William Hurt, he is stuck behind the scenes, away from the spotlight.
This film also shows how demanding the television industry can be on those who work in it. While most people do not put that much thought into the news they watch, the production takes a great deal of work and precision and takes a lot out of the people who invest their lives into the work. Broadcast News is a funny and fun film and a true classic.
The Cable Guy (1996)
Another film in which Jim Carrey shines, The Cable Guy is a deeply dark comedy about the effects too much television can have on a young mind (and an already disturbed mind). Jim Carrey plays the titular cable guy. Through flashbacks, you learn that the cable guy was raised on television, it was the only parent or companion he knew growing up and television became his reality. Life was a series of different TV shows and he twisted them into a tangled web of craziness and deceit.
The cable guy installs a man’s cable and is bribed into giving him free movie channels. He agrees and tries to befriend the man. All seems well, although the cable guy is admittedly strange. But then his friendliness becomes disturbing and he begins to infiltrate the man’s life. His grasp on reality is non-existent and his “character” changes repeatedly throughout the film. A dark look at what too much childhood television consumption can do to a person, The Cable Guy is a film that foreshadows the youth of today. What will happen to them as adults? Watch The Cable Guy to see one possible outcome, and a brilliant comedic film.