'Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams': TV Review

Christopher Raphael/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television
A box of sci-fi chocolates.
1/12/2018

Amazon's creative new anthology uses different writers and directors to interpret the famed sci-fi writer's work.

There are numerous troubles with mounting a good science fiction series; there are plenty of excellent ones already out there, from Black Mirror to Humans to Westworld, and many movies and TV series spanning decades, so retreading ideas and falling short in the process is a very real risk — but perhaps the most insurmountable issue is the sci-fi connoisseur.

It is almost impossible to satisfy that person. And you know who that person is.

That person probably won't like much of Amazon's new anthology series, Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, based on a series of his short stories (with each of the 10 hourlong installments featuring different writers and directors, given latitude to stray from the original content as they see fit). On the other hand, even though the series can seem uneven, most everybody else will be able to find something to satisfy them in Electric Dreams, as it winds its way through varied storytelling styles, littered with intriguing actors and exploding with creative (and expensive-looking) visual flourishes. That's not a bad deal.

It's helpful that we live in a binge-TV world and that Amazon is a purveyor of that, since skipping over whatever perceived "weaker" episodes you find is not a ruiner, given the anthology concept. And for Electric Dreams, it might also benefit from the Peak TV overload people are experiencing (and which is dramatically altering their choices on what to watch), since picking and choosing episodes and coming back later to do it again is an option few go in for when faced with a daunting 13 unwatched episodes (or two seasons) of a serialized drama.

What, then, would cause the need for such a pick-and-choose philosophy when it comes to Electric Dreams? For starters, it's the visionary Dick himself, who was well out in front, starting in the 1950s, with his books and short stories that were sci-fi but laced with a clearly defined idea of how the human element played into the glitzier notions of advanced technology and other utopian, futuristic concepts. Being one of the noted early writers of compassionate, existential sci-fi should not be held against him in 2018. But yes, some of the ground in Electric Dreams has been traveled onscreen before, sometimes to better effect. And a group of modern viewers keen on the alienating dark side of tech paranoia and its drastic, often damaging fallout as depicted on Black Mirror might take, for example, the first story in the anthology, "Real Life" (directed by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander), and feel a little underwhelmed when it concludes. Is it bad or boring? Absolutely not. And it's fleshed out with Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard, to give it star appeal. But the concept — real world vs. virtual world, the confusions of each and the preferred comfort levels of each — is now very familiar territory. And it's hard not to think that if Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker had taken his own swing at it, the ending would have been far more soul-crushing. That said, even though there's a familiarity to Moore's take on "Real Life," it's not an episode to skip.

There are others like that and viewers will find that their reactions to each will vary based not only on what they've seen in the past (on big and small screens) but on the mood they are in at the moment. Despite some Electric Dreams episodes feeling overly familiar or their execution being less interesting than some similar sci-fi takes elsewhere, none of them is a turn-off and there are some real gems to be found here.

Because they are generally an hour long, the episodes have to be short movies; that sense of tightness helps some and hinders others (with the best giving you a sense of a complete, well-told story or an atmospheric, impressionistic short story).

"Autofac," with Juno Temple and Janelle Monae, is a nicely contained post-apocalyptic look at consumerism (and, yep, technology) that certainly makes you feel like the omnipresent, authoritarian and worrisome company at the center of it all is Amazon, so give Amazon Video a little credit for getting that one past Jeff Bezos.

As an example of the mood assortment available in the anthology, "The Commuter" attempts a story that a full-blown movie would be built around: A train station agent discovers that passengers are going to a destination that doesn't exist on the map. Timothy Spall's performance as a loving father with a heartbreakingly troubled son makes this one of the better episodes you'll see, with Tuppence Middleton as a bewitching arbiter of a dreamworld (with a moral quandary for visitors).

The same star-driven excellence can be found in the final episode, "Kill All Others," where Mel Rodriguez gives yet another of his sublimely great performances as possibly the last sane man in a "mega country" gone mad. His unwillingness to accept totalitarian methods that have crushed fellow citizens, his shock and fear at what's happening to a "MexUsCan," the three-countries-in-one future state presided over by Vera Farmiga, add nuance and compassion to a story that by its nature is meant to be heavy-handed and extreme. Written and directed by Dee Rees, "Kill All Others" achieves its ideal impact precisely because Rodriguez brings humanity and believability to his performance.

Stars are everywhere in Electric Dreams — Bryan Cranston, Greg Kinnear, Steve Buscemi, Farmiga, Maura Tierney, Richard Madden, Mireille Enos, Essie Davis and others. So, too, are a litany of fine directors — Rees (Mudbound), Jeffrey Reiner (Fargo, Friday Night Lights), Tom Harper (Peaky Blinders), Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones, Mad Men) and more.

And, yes, there are a lot of cooks in this kitchen — multiple executive producers — but Isa Dick Hackett, who shepherds her father's library of works, and Moore oversaw the vision here.

With diverse storytelling and visuals, there's a lot to glom onto and enjoy in Electric Dreams. Like people who obsessively rank or debate episodes of Black Mirror, you can just assume that your particular highs and lows will be your own. Getting hung up on dismissing the ones you're less into makes you, well, that person. For the sake of all future sci-fi, don't be that person.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Greg Kinnear, Steve Buscemi, Vera Farmiga, Maura Tierney, Richard Madden, Mireille Enos, Timothy Spall, Liam Cunningham, Holliday Grainger, Mel Rodriguez, Benedict Wong, Essie Davis, Geraldine Chaplin

Written by: Ron Moore, Travis Beacham, Jessica Mecklenburg, Tony Grisoni, Matthew Graham, Kalen Egan, Travis Sentell, Michael Dinner, David Farr, Jack Thorne, Dee Rees

Directed by: Dee Rees, Tom Harper, David Farr, Michael Dinner, Alan Taylor, Julian Jarrold, Marc Munden, Francesca Gregorini, Peter Horton, Jeffrey Reiner

Premieres: Jan. 12 (Amazon Prime)

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