Binge or Purge?: Electric Dreams.
This anthology of science fiction short films based on the works of Philip K. Dick is uneven and unpolished, obscuring the clever source material.
If you’re at all interested in science fiction, you know Philip K. Dick’s work. Even if you’ve never heard the name, Dick was one of the most prolific writers in the genre and his ideas were developed into iconic SF films such as Bladerunner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report. The very ubiquity of his ideas in mainstream science fiction actually works against this latest anthology of his works. While these shorts are much more faithful to his stories, they can feel overly familiar. His ideas, groundbreaking in the 1960’s and 70’s, have been so liberally borrowed that in 2018 they feel like forgeries themselves. Add in a very uneven level of visual quality and acting ability and you get a series that is much better on paper than it is in practice.
Electric Dreams (2017-18)
Produced by Sony Television Pictures and originally distributed by Channel 4 in the UK in 2017, this anthology of ten hour-long standalone features are based on the short stories of Philip K. Dick. They range from modern dystopian fantasies to far-future stories set in outer space, always focusing on what it means to be human in the face of incredible events. The series was released in the US by Amazon in January of 2018.
Episode 1: Real Life.
A police detective in the near future is wracked with guilt over a terrorist attack she could not prevent. She seeks solace in a VR simulation that promises to create a world based on her subconscious desires. She finds herself living the life of a successful black businessman in the 2010’s, who has recently suffered the loss of his wife…at the hands of the same man who orchestrated the terrorist attack on her precinct. When the businessman tests out a VR prototype he is about to unveil for investors, he finds himself in a fantasy life: that of a young female police detective in the near future!
This episode was not the first one aired in the UK, and I can see why. It is extremely uneven. Anna Paquin (X-Men) gives a wooden performance as the detective, and sequences set in the future come off as a flat and generic crime drama. Terrence Howard (Empire, Hustle and Flow) plays the tech billionaire on the verge of creating VR, and gives a strong turn as an emotionally frayed man torn between seeking vengeance and escaping into his VR fantasy land. If it weren’t for the modern day story and the terrific performances there, this episode would have been a lifeless drama with a predictable SF twist.
Episode 3: Real Is.
In the far future, mankind is desperate for a rare gas that renders Earth’s devastated environment livable. A stern and ambitious military man (Bryan Cranston) urges a costly war against another sentient race that has an abundant source of the material, but his wife (Essie Davis) is a diplomat who wants to find a peaceful solution. The colonel wins the argument and heads to the foreign planet, but when he returns he is a profoundly changed man. His wife must discover what happened on the other world before the council notices his change of heart.
After two middling episodes we finally get a great episode. Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis are fantastic and give their roles a real sense of character. The visuals are not top of the line, but they have a unique and consistent vibe that matches the story wonderfully. My only criticism for this episode is leveled at the whole first season so far: the stories we get all revolve around twist endings that make the drama feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone instead of a mature SF story.
Episode 4: Crazy Diamond.
Ed is a technician at a biomedical facility that implants Quantum Consciousnesses into the inert bodies of human replicants called Jacks and Jills. These QC’s give the cloned persons life and intelligence, but they degrade over time. A desperate Jill seeks him out in order to expand her life, promising him that if he helps her steal some QC’s, she’ll share the profits so Ed can finally finish his sail boat and leave his mundane life behind.
This episode isn’t uniformly great, but it has all of the interesting angles and moral dilemmas that populate the best of Dick’s stories. Steve Buscemi is perfect as Ed, a shabby man with a good heart who nevertheless keeps making bad decisions. Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld) is engaging in the femme fatale role of Jill, tempting Ed less with her sexuality and more with her cunning insight into his prosaic dreams. There are a lot of fascinating ideas that percolate just under the surface, such as why the world needs replicants or DNA spliced humans and why everything seems like it is running down into ruin. Unfortunately, they remain window dressing, but the story itself is clever and thoughtful.
Binge or Purge?
After having watched almost all of the episodes for Electric Dreams, I still can’t decide if I would recommend it or not. There are some high points, but they’re not nearly as frequent as the forgettable episodes. The visual quality seems decidedly dated – even the opening sequence looks like its trying to mimic American Gods or Hannibal, but was created with last-gen computer graphics. There are some fantastically talented actors and actresses in this series, but the performances are not uniformly good. The selection of stories tends to over-emphasize gimmicks and plot twists that feel cheap.
So much of what Philip K. Dick wrote was clever and unexpected, but he didn’t solely rely on theatrical reveals to prop up his stories. His best work was mordant social commentary suffused with radical SF ideas. Unfortunately so much of his work has been strip-mined, many of his stories feel like retreads of famous SF, when it was those stories that were borrowing from him! I would say wait for a second season and see if the show is willing to take a deeper dive and use Dick’s more mature writing.