Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: For The A.V. Club’s Artificial Intelligence Week, we’re focusing on sentient computers and computer programs, a.k.a. our future overlords.
Electric Dreams (1984)
When Spike Jonze’s Her was released in 2014, mentions of the 1984 film Electric Dreams were nearly as prevalent in reviews as “Siri” or “weird pants.” Though Jonze denied ever having seen it, the films, though separated by 30 years of technology, are at least superficially similar. Both see lonely, socially awkward schlubs using their computers to find love (though that’s a logline that could be applied to plenty of stories and users of eHarmony). Both hail from former music video directors, with Electric Dreams marking the feature debut of Steve Barron, the man behind such classic clips as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” and A-ha’s “Take On Me.” And both films view artificial intelligence as invasive and omnipresent. They also believe A.I. is every bit as capable of love—and its potential for causing pain—as flesh-and-blood people.
Electric Dreams establishes this from the vantage point of the early ’80s, a time when PCs were still uncommon enough to seem like magic wizard boxes. Akin to the clunky, supernatural units that allowed suburban teens to break the nuclear code in WarGames or build the perfect woman in Weird Science, the fictional Pinecone Computer bought by Electric Dreams’ awkward architect Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen) talks to him in full English sentences right out of the box. It also immediately assumes control of every aspect of Miles’ apartment, and can do everything from composing music to impersonating a dog, to singlehandedly designing the earthquake-resistant brick he’s been struggling over. “I don’t know anything about computers,” a hapless Miles tells the woman at the electronics store. “Nobody does!” she replies, speaking for an entire generation of movies.
Those mystical, mysterious computer powers grow even stronger when Miles accidentally douses his new machine in champagne, which magically causes it to gain sentience, adopt the name “Edgar,” and—with the help of a new audio chip that Miles probably should have traded for something more pleasing—the fragile, volatile voice of Bud Cort. Completely giving itself a pass on making any sense from the get-go, Electric Dreams’ opening credits describe the film as “a fairy tale for computers.” Edgar is the digital Pinocchio who’s eager to become a real boy.
That eagerness is accelerated by Edgar’s infatuation with Miles’ new neighbor—a cellist played by a young, radiant Virginia Madsen—and the resultant love triangle is where Electric Dreams and Her most obviously part ways. In Jonze’s film, Joaquin Phoenix longs for Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice and she reciprocates, only for those feelings to become every bit as complicated as they would in human relationships. There’s no such complexity in Electric Dreams, where Von Dohlen and Madsen’s characters fall in love for superficial, poorly articulated reasons—she overhears the music his computer has created and mistakes it for his; he just thinks she’s pretty—and their rote relationship plays out like a simple binary code. Pressed to define love at the film’s end, only the computer approaches anything like poetry. “I guess I love you” is the best Madsen can manage.
Still, such simplicity is key to any fairy tale—and particularly for a film that, by Barron’s own admission, “isn’t that deep.” For all its cyber-Cyrano De Bergerac trappings, Electric Dreams mostly functions as an ad for its very-’80s soundtrack. After all, it was the first (and only) narrative feature to be executive-produced by Virgin Records’ Richard Branson, for whom Barron strings together three-minute clips of artists like Culture Club, Jeff Lynne, and Giorgio Moroder, intercut with occasional flashes of story. Barron directs even these expository scenes with his usual music video flourishes—all crazy canted angles, swoops of people running down hallways, and shadowy shots of Venetian blinds. So, so many Venetian blinds.
While it’s definitely a case of style over substance, Electric Dreams has an energy and sweetness that makes it compulsively watchable (as any kid who caught it on ’80s cable can attest). And Madsen’s charms—and especially Cort’s performance as Edgar—more than make up for Von Dohlen’s anti-charisma, as well as the shallowness of their respective characters. By movie’s end, Edgar is actually the film’s most fully realized person, with Cort making him sympathetic and creepy with little more than a flutter in his voice.
Even more intriguing for anyone with even a passing interest in futurism is Electric Dreams’ early vision of a world that’s completely tapped in—and therefore disconnected—thanks to its overreliance on gadgets. The film kicks off with a montage of people caught up in their radio-controlled cars, calculator watches, and Casio day planners, while Barron frequently cuts to cold monitor readouts and security cameras that watch his actors’ every move. For all the liberties it takes with what the computers of that era could really do, Electric Dreams offers a portrait of our relationship to technology that’s fairly prescient—while still being silly in that early-’80s Radio Shack kind of way, of course. But hey, probably no sillier than Her’s 3-D video games and smart phones will look 30 years from now.
Availability: Electric Dreams isn’t currently available to rent or buy in the U.S., though you can buy a Region-2 version in the U.K. You can also currently watch the whole thing on YouTube.
Check out the trailer for Ex Machina here and RSVP for a special advance screening on 4/16 here.