Review: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Janelle Monáe in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a science fiction anthology of 10 episodes streaming on Amazon. Instead of reviewing the anthology as a whole the way I normally would a TV season, I’ll briefly discuss each individual episode.

Various writers took the short stories of Philip K. Dick and made them into the individual tales of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. There’s no reason to watch them in any particular order. They all stand on their own.

The thing that unites the stories in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams are the themes and motifs used to talk about the world. As a whole, the stories develop themes around the meaning of reality, of normality, and of humanity. The importance of love and acceptance threads through most of the tales. Government control over mind and body is also a prevalent theme.

The production values in each story are high. Sets are beautiful and well done. The actors are outstanding. Overall, the anthology series is remarkably good. I am extremely disappointed that only two women directors were used.

The Hood Maker

Holliday Grainger and Richard Madden in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Agent Ross (Richard Madden) and his partner Honor (Holliday Grainger) are sent to investigate the use of telepath-blocking hoods in a world where the only means of communication over distance is telepathy. There used to be an internet, but the world has regressed from that.

Honor has mixed feelings about the hoods, because her gift (mutation) is reading people. She can’t read anyone wearing a hood. And she can’t read Ross. It’s peaceful around Ross, it quiets the voices in Honor’s head. They fall in love – maybe. It’s hard to tell about Ross, but Honor feels something genuine.

Normals delight in forcing telepaths to read their thoughts while thinking horrifying thoughts like raping the person reading their mind. In a world where normals consider telepaths the enemy who must be policed and controlled, nothing good will happen to either side.

Honor’s friend Mary (Anneika Rose), another telepath, leads a revolt against normals. A group of “teeps,” as the telepaths are called, gang up on a normal person and overwhelm the person’s mind, leaving them babbling like babies.

As Honor and Ross figure out where the hoods are coming from, so do Mary and her resisters. They want to burn all the hoods and seize control over the normals.

This is a dark tale, everything is shrouded in darkness. Until there is understanding and respect between all the parties living in the world, there will be no happy ending. A world of “them” and “us” is destined to implode.

  • Director: Julian Jarrold
  • Writer: Matthew Graham
  • Summary: Everyone deserves to have private thoughts.

Impossible Planet

Geraldine Chaplin and Jack Reynor in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Irma (Geraldine Chaplin) wants to go to Earth. Irma is 345 years old, and Earth was long since destroyed. But she dreams about the clear streams and green mountains her grandmother described on Earth in a place called Carolina.

She goes to Dream Weaver tours with a huge wad of cash. This tourist trap company conducts tours all over the universe. The nefarious Andrews (Benedict Wong) takes her money and tells her they will go to Earth. Norton (Jack Reynor), another Dream Weaver employee, plays along for a while.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the planet they are passing off as Earth. Norton and Irma form a relationship. This romantic story is about making your dreams reality.

Irma takes several forms near the end of the story, perhaps because the idea of a handsome young Jack Reynor kissing a much older Geraldine Chaplin was deemed unacceptable. Or maybe it was her dream of herself as a young woman. As you might guess, I’m of the opinion that Geraldine Chaplin is a beautiful and desirable woman just as she is. I was a little put off by the younger versions of Irma.

  • Director: David Farr
  • Writer: David Farr
  • Summary: Love is the place where dreams come true.

The Commuter

Timothy Spall in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall), a train station employee, meets a woman named Linda (Tuppence Middleton). Linda keeps insisting she needs a ticket for Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. She disappears in an instant, and reappears the same way.

When Ed investigates, he finds Macon Heights is an alternate reality where everyone is happy. To find it, you jump off a moving train, walk across a field, and see a perfect little town in the mist.

When he goes back home after his first visit to Macon Heights, his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) is there but his son Sam (Anthony Boyle) disappeared as if he never existed.

Ed is a sad guy. Timothy Spall has the perfect sad sack face. He’s temporarily happy when he’s in the reality of Macon Heights. His son, a violent and psychotic troublemaker was ruining his life. His wife Mary is more loving in the reality where Sam never existed.

Ed visits a reporter named Martine Jenkins (Anne Reid) who talks about how the town almost came to be, and about believing happiness can really exist.

The mysterious Linda often confronts him about what he wants and needs to be happy and about what is real. She forces him to think about whether he really wants his son Sam in his life.

I loved this story. Partly it was because of Tuppence Middleton and Anne Reid being in the cast. Mostly it was the creative way things and people defied reality. I liked the way buildings only had fronts and doors that opened into a magical space where walls turned into puddles. I liked the way Linda walked down through stairs instead of up on them. I liked the way the scene changed instantly from one place to another with no explanation.

  • Director: Tom Harper
  • Writer: Jack Thorne
  • Summary: Do you choose reality, or perfect happiness, or can you have both?

Crazy Diamond

Sidse Babett Knudsen in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

I looked forward to this one because I’m a huge fan of Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Jill – one of many Jills in a world full of synthetic Jacks and Jills. She plays opposite Steve Buscemi and Julia Davis as Ed and Sally Morris.

The thing is, this particular Jill is failing and she needs a new shot of consciousness to keep living. And she wants to live!

I wasn’t disappointed in my anticipation. “Crazy Diamond” was funny and sexy – in spite of a lack of actual sex scenes, which many other stories had. It was full of plot twists and double crosses.

Ed is just your average schmo, normal. Ed and his normal wife Sally are waiting for their house to fall into the sea due to coastal erosion. They both meet Jill in various ways. She convinces each of them to do things that are illegal on her behalf.

  • Director: Marc Munden
  • Writer: Tony Grisoni
  • Summary: What makes us normal?

Real Life

Anna Paquin in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Anna Paquin plays Sarah, Terrence Howard is George, and Rachelle Lefevre is Katie in this futuristic story about a female cop. Sarah feels guilty about a past mistake. Her wife Katie suggests a virtual reality vacation to relax. The VR device of the future is a small disc which is placed on the temple.

When Sarah wakes up on vacation, she’s a man named George in the middle of a gun fight. She doesn’t know where she is. She can’t drive a car because it doesn’t respond to voice commands and doesn’t fly. As George, she at first doesn’t even know her name. Even as she remembers more and more of George’s life, she uses the rudimentary VR headset from his time to go back to Sarah’s life.

In George’s life, his wife Katie is dead. He wants Sarah’s perfect life with a living Katie. Sarah, on the other hand, wants George’s life because she thinks she should be punished. Neither of them think they deserve the beautiful and loving Katie. We dodge back and forth between realities until the realities intersect and Sarah/George isn’t sure which life is real and which is virtual.

Unlike “Crazy Diamond,” which sizzled with sexiness without sex scenes, this story has multiple sex scenes.

  • Director: Jeffrey Reiner
  • Writer: Ronald D. Moore
  • Summary: Feelings of unworthiness plus too much VR will destroy your brain.

Human Is

Essie Davis in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

This is the first episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams I watched with both a female writer and female director. I’m glad two women got to be the ones to tell this lovely story.

Vera (Essie Davis) is married to Silas (Bryan Cranston). He’s an emotionally abusive S.O.B. Earth, excuse me Terra – it is 2520, after all – is running out of breathable air. Silas is sent on a covert mission to rob another planet. He will steal their Hydran in order to make Terra livable for a longer time.

General Olin (Liam Cunningham) is in favor of this theft, as is Silas. Vera opposes it because it will endanger the Rexors from the other planet.

To escape her unhappy marriage, Vera descends into a sublevel maze. It’s a “Clockwork Orange” world with all kinds of sex, in which she participates.

The mission Silas is on runs into trouble. General Olin supposedly kills everyone there with a nuke, while autopiloting back the loaded ship full of Hydran. Somehow Silas survives.

Silas is changed. He’s sweet, thoughtful, loving. The suspicion is that he and the other survivor are now metamorphs from the planet Rexor. Vera likes the new Silas – very much. Very, very much. She doesn’t want General Olin to terminate him.

This story, with brilliant performances from both Essie Davis and Bryan Cranston, was so relevant to current events. In our world of toxic masculinity and abusive male privilege, Philip K. Dick is almost saying that a normal man can’t be human or even humane unless he’s somehow merged with a kinder species. Maybe the beings of Rexor are all female! For reference, “Human Is” was first published in 1955.

  • Director: Francesca Gregorini
  • Writer: Jessica Mecklenburg
  • Summary: Sacrifice, kindness, and love are the ultimate test of what makes someone human.

Kill All Others

Vera Farmiga in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

“Kill All Other” was chilling. Set in the near future of 2054, there is but one candidate (Vera Farmiga) for office in a combined country of Mex-US-Can. Everyone was expected to vote for this candidate.

Phil (Mel Rodriguez) and Maggie (Sarah Baker) are husband and wife, living in a home with the constant presence of holographic advertising and mandatory television programs.

When Phil sees kill all others flashed over The Candidates face, he speaks up about it to his coworkers. Later he sees a sign from the train that says kill all others. He causes a train accident over it, which gets him taken in for questioning by a Peace Sergeant (DuShon Monique Brown).

Everyone keeps telling him to shut up, not to question the politicians and the government. He keeps speaking up. His outspoken behavior gets him labeled  as “An Other.”

Most people go along. Keep silent. Do whatever they are told to do by their leaders. Learn the new normal as quickly as possible. The few who do not are others. Every aspect of government is organized around methods for eliminating others, for preventing others from finding ways to assemble and band together.

When Philip K. Dick originally wrote this story, he might have been thinking of Nazi Germany. Yet here we are again in a world where control over the narrative is everything and independent thinking is demonized by the powerful far right.

Dee Rees wrote and directed this one. She made Phil and Sally completely sympathetic as ordinary people, but she saved her final punch in the gut for The Candidate, speaking directly into the camera about expanding the new kill all others program around the world.

  • Director: Dee Rees
  • Writer: Dee Rees
  • Summary: Thinking for yourself is a revolutionary act.

Autofac

Juno Temple in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

A group of people led by Emily Zabriskie (Juno Temple), Conrad Morrison (David Lyons) and Reverend Perine (Jay Paulson) incite their community into a plan to destroy the Autofac.

In a war, everything was destroyed. But the Autofac keeps churning out consumer products. It pollutes the air, poisons the water, and uses needed resources.

Emily is a brilliant programmer. She uses Alice (Janelle Monáe), a synthetic human representative of the Autofac, to get inside. Flying into the Autofac had a strong Star Wars feel, with ships and drones delivering packages filling the sky in every direction.

Nothing is what it seems, however. This story has some lovely plot twists and some whiz bang tech effects. As with almost all these stories, there’s a love story involved between Emily and Avishai (Nick Eversman) that may explain part of Emily’s motivation for wanting to destroy Autofac.

  • Director: Peter Horton
  • Writer: Travis Beacham
  • Summary: Not everything is replaceable.

Safe & Sound

Annalise Basso in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Fifteen year old Foster (Annalise Basso) and her mother (Maura Tierney) move into the city from a “bubble.” They were living in a small outlying community, disconnected from the security and privacy invasions in the city.

Foster wants a Dex, a device all the other kids have. It tracks their every move and is a loss of privacy, but it also is how they do their school work.

Her mother refuses to buy her a Dex. Her mother is a militant who says all the terrorist attacks blamed on people from the bubbles are mere propaganda. She has permission to be in the city for one year to work with the government on this problem.

Foster gets a Dex by illegally hacking into her mother’s account. The Dex talks to her constantly – a voice named Ethan (Connor Paolo). Ethan makes Foster distrust the one potential true friend she might have, Milena (Alice Lee). In fact, Ethan makes Foster distrust her own mother.

While several of the stories in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams have been grim reflections on how governments use mind and behavior control, “Safe & Sound” is the darkest and most disheartening of them all. In “Kill All Others” the methods were positively barbaric compared with “Safe & Sound.” Dissenters and independent thinkers didn’t stand a chance in either story, but the methods were more sophisticated here.

  • Director: Alan Taylor
  • Writers: Kalen Egan, Travis Sentell
  • Summary: Don’t trust the voices in your head.

The Father Thing

Jack Gore in Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Charlie (Jack Gore) is an 11 year old baseball aficionado.  His father (Greg Kinnear) is in the garage one evening. Charlie sees lights and hears electricity crackling. He peers through the window and sees something taking over his dad’s body. Charlie’s dad even admits the truth to him – he’s some kind of wanderer among the stars.

Charlie’s mother (Mireille Enos) doesn’t mind that her husband is suddenly better than before.

Charlie notices that others are taken over by aliens as well. It’s everywhere. He and his pal Dylan (Jack Lewis) and Dylan’s bully of a big brother Henry (Zakk Paradise) decide they have to do something about it. No one else believes him.

Other than the alien invasion, this story had no high tech sci-fi features. Just smart kids. It brought to mind Home Alone or maybe even Stranger Things.

  • Director: Michael Dinner
  • Writer: Michael Dinner
  • Summary: #Resist

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