Electric Dreams (1984)

Before watching the movie:

I wanted to find a positive movie about the internet, telepresence, computers and communication bringing us together. Here in the holiday season of 2020, people are either lamenting not being able to join family gatherings or participating in the greatest infection spike of the year by going anyway. I wanted to find a story about people who are separated for Reasons being able to bring light into each others’ lives through the internet, video chat, hologram, or virtual reality communication.

Nobody wants to tell optimistic stories about technology. We get movies like The Net, where hackers can destroy a target’s entire life because the internet enables them, The Matrix, where the Machines put humans into a VR simulation of the 1990s so they wouldn’t notice they’re being enslaved, Lawnmower Man, where a mentally disabled man is plugged into a VR world and decides to become a god, and just so very many movies about killer computer programs being unleashed on the real world.

The most positive candidates I could come up with were Surrogates, a movie about a world where most people plug their brains into lifelike androids and never leave the safety of their homes (which I’ve already seen, and it’s not all that positive), Avatar, where the military plugs a disabled man’s brain into an alien body and he gets to know the aliens’ culture and decides to side with them over the military that wants to destroy their home (again, already seen), and Hyperland, a very odd TV special where virtual Tom Baker teaches Douglas Adams about the lifechanging ways that computers are going to change his life in the coming decades (not a movie, and already seen). I have not seen Ready Player One, but it seems maybe too positive on the idea of escaping into virtual worlds. I get the idea that it’s less about creating virtual communities and more about how it’s cool to base your life on pop culture.

Electric Dreams. Virgin Films 1984.

In fact, the only stories about the internet bringing family together that I can think of are thirty-second short films about things like Spectrum saving Christmas. Because it seems the only people who want to tell inspiring stories about the internet are the companies who are selling you the internet. Everyone else is just much more fascinated with technology gone wrong.

So, I’ve settled on this obscure romantic comedy about a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a computer. Does it probe my thesis about the internet bringing people together? Almost certainly not. But it’s about a computer character and nobody gets murdered (probably), so I’m going to take it.

After watching the movie:

Miles Harding is a shy nerd whose life is a disorganized mess. He works for an architecture firm, but on his own time he’s trying to design an earthquake-proof brick. A colleague encourages him to get an electronic organizer, but the woman at the shop upsells him into the latest model personal microcomputer and all the accessories, including adapters to control all his home appliances and door locks. When Miles decides to network his computer to his boss’s basement-sized computer, it overloads and he cools it off with a bottle of champagne. The next day, Miles’s upstairs neighbor, Madeline, is practicing her cello when the computer begins improvising a synthesized duet with her. Struck by the beauty of the music, Madeline is intrigued by Miles, who she thinks was playing it, and they begin dating. As the computer, Edgar, learns to synthesize speech and studies the world through television, Miles tries to get it to help him impress Madeline by writing a song for her, which leads Edgar to question what love is, before coming to the conclusion that it is in love with Madeline too, and decides to try to take Miles out of the equation.

While this isn’t as hopeful as I expected, and Edgar manages to make Miles’s life pretty miserable with just a phone line and a speech synthesizer not unlike The Net or some more modern stories like Jexi, a recent movie about an Alexa-like AI assistant becoming a crazy ex-girlfriend, but in the end, what makes Edgar surrender seems to be realizing that it loves both Miles and Madeline, and the epilogue sees Edgar sending good wishes to them.

Miles carries a lot of the movie and while I’ve never heard of Von Dohlen, he seems a lot like Harold Ramis with a bit of David Schwimmer. The character is described late in the movie as kind and caring, and he plays that pretty well. The only time I can really argue with that is when the script has him brush off Madeline’s earlier distressed phone call that he just found out about because for some reason the writers didn’t want him to know about the broken cello until later. Bud Cort’s performance as Edgar is a little cartoonish, and I think that at some point the vocal and electronic effects to make it sound synthesized should have been relaxed.

The way that the 80s and 90s envisioned smart home devices is a bit odd today. I don’t think it’s possible to retrofit appliances to be controlled remotely beyond simple AC on/off without soldering, but it always comes across as the computer either just doing it through the main power lines or maybe, as in this movie, an adapter plugged in between the device and the wall. It reminds me a lot of Flubber, but that movie had the excuse that the professor was capable of extensively modifying his electronics. Basically, before wifi became commonplace and we started putting smartphone chips in refrigerators, home automation in movies worked by Don’t Worry About It technology.

Well, this movie pretty much entirely was not what I was looking for, but hopefully the brief filmography I was able to put together provides some interesting material to consider this season. It may not be safe or responsible to celebrate normally this year, but you are only alone if you log out.

One thought on “Electric Dreams (1984)

  1. Valerie November 27, 2020 / 1:39 pm

    Love your second sentence. So true!

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