Sometimes a person is just in the mood for an unchallenging, predictable 30-minute sitcom that doesn’t ask any big uncomfortable questions. If that’s you, I will say right now that I don’t recommend Electric Dreams.
However, if you are in the mood for some serious dystopian foxfire, riddled with existential dread and quirkily romantic, you are in for a treat. This anthology of wonderfully filmed episodes can be seen in whatever order pleases you, and the subject, style and genre vary broadly, though the episodes share a sumptuous production sensibility and terrific casting. Are you a fan of Dick’s stories? Because I never was: I mean, I never hated him, but I was never that interested in picking up a book, so it’s interesting to realize that I almost always love film and television adaptations of his work. There are some writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, notoriously) who are damn near impossible to translate to the screen, and some, apparently including Philip K. Dick, whose work was born for translation to the screen.
The what-ifs span numerous worlds and times and alternate realities, but each questions the fundamental human-ness of humans and they do it in some awfully clever and affecting ways. Timothy Spall plays a railway worker who finds himself in an alternate world where that thing you wish hadn’t happened actually never did. Geraldine Chaplin plays a 300-year-old woman on a mission to see Earth before she dies. Jack Gore’s father (Greg Kinnear) is replaced by an alien, and no, it’s not an overactive imagination and angst about his parents’ imminent divorce: The dude’s an alien. Each episode is richly imaginative, directed with seat-edge-gripping tension, and peopled with strikingly strong performers (Chaplin, Spall, and Benedict Wong, as a cynical tour-spaceship operator, are standouts, but there’s not really any significant dead space here). Some are post-apocalyptic, some are not. Some have a decidedly dystopian feel and some are just plain old neurotic. Each clocks in at a little under an hour, and while sci-fi isn’t always my go-to genre, I didn’t find a single episode to be anything but compelling.
Each story has its own totally unique world and its own flavor, but the through line here is nothing more or less than the teensy little question of what it is, what it means, to be a sentient being, and specifically to be human. The series manages to have a quiet, philosophical nature even when an alien incursion is underway or the oxygen tanks have run down to zero. Depending on your own proclivities, you’ll likely find some episodes more captivating than others (“Real Life,” starring Anna Paquin, hit me as a little less enticing than the Spall vehicle “The Commuter,” personally). But these are, by and large, rich and striking, with beautiful visuals and compassionately rendered characters. Dick’s stories seem to lean toward fragile, relatable human protagonists, and that’s certainly how these episodes are focused. I don’t know about you, but there is only so much dystopia I can handle with good humor in the absence of a relatably human protagonist, and maybe that’s why these stories seem so compelling to me; there’s a focus on existential, versus ethical, dilemmas and questions that I really like. (Fans of Black Mirror might go either way on that; these stories are definitely more compassionately wrought.)
So—sleek color-saturated production, casts peppered with great actors, and some questions for the ages, notably “Who are we really?” and “What is reality?” and “If half of baseball players bat left-handed, why isn’t first base as much of a ‘hot spot’ as third?”
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams premieres Friday, January 12 on Amazon Prime Video.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.