Thoughts on Amazon's Electric Dreams

Amazon and Netflix are engaged in a bit of a content war, which, for the longest time, Netflix was winning with series like House of Cards and Stranger Things. Recent Prime entries like The Man in High Castle and the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are evening the playing field. Amazon’s Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is the countermove to Netflix’s successful Black Mirror.

You might recognize the title as a reference to Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which is what the movie Bladerunner is based upon. Phillip K. Dick’s influence is ubiquitous, and it’s surprising just how many well-known movies are based on his stories. These include:

  • Blade Runner

  • Total Recall

  • Screamers

  • Minority Report

  • A Scanner Darkly

  • Next

  • The Adjustment Bureau

Each of Amazon’s ten episodes is loosely based upon a Phillip K. Dick story. Because many of his shorts appeared in pulpy sci-fi magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction in the 1950s, the works all have an Amazing Stories feel to them.

Intrigued, I binged the series. It started off badly.

The opening credits look like they were done with mid 90s computer animation and video effects. It’s not exactly the same quality as the credits to say, The Man in High Castle:

It somewhat reminds me of the 90s The Outer Limits opening, both visually and in weirdness:

Initially, I watched the first episode and half of the second episode before bailing. Fortunately, I googled the episode reviews and found the better episodes were later in the series. I decided to give it another chance. The three episodes I liked the best were:

The Commuter - a man discovers passengers on his train buying tickets to a stop which doesn’t exist. When he goes there, he finds something amazing. This is the hands-down best episode of the series because it is the most human. It feels at home in an Amazing Stories episode, and has themes from the Adjustment Bureau. Its central question is: what if you could wish all of your problems away, but some of those problems are your loved ones? This very much reminds me of the Adjustment Bureau’s plan to give Matt Damon’s character a better life at the expense of never meeting his true love.

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The Father Thing - a boy believes his father has been replaced by an alien. Quite a good episode, with Greg Kinnear playing the dad, the boys channeling a Stranger Things vibe as they have basement meetings and go up against evil forces.

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Crazy Diamond - a man helps a replicant steal an AI to rejuvenate her. Crazy sets and brilliant cinematography separate this episode from the others. Its director clearly knew what he was doing both in tone and story. For example, when Steve Buscemi unwittingly climbs onto a boat containing the two women he’s double-crossed, we don’t see the ensuing struggle. The camera simply cuts to an underwater view looking up at the boat, suddenly disturbed by Steve being tossed into the water. The plot itself is bonkers, but the unearthy music and Wes Anderson-ish visuals are worth the price of admission..

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Kill All Others - a man becomes increasingly unsettled when everyone treats an inflammatory politician’s violent directives as normal. Well-directed, but, similar to Black Mirror, unsure of how to end. The hyper-advertised world with people buying products just to get the sexy hologram advertisement is brilliant. “You need to buy some cheese,” one of the co-workers nods and winks to the main character.

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The remainder of the episodes are:

Human Is - a woman believes her unkind war-hero husband has been replaced by a kinder alien, and she prefers the alien. The briefly-viewed infantry battle is very Forever War-ish, with soldiers in space suits shooting at weird aliens which look like electrical will-o-wisps. The story itself, which devolves into a trial episode, is dry and boring, despite Bryan Cranston’s best efforts.

Real Life - a detective (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) with a troubled past tries to put her worries aside in virtual reality, but she becomes increasingly unsure which of the realities is the virtual one. Disjointed, confusing, and violent, this was one of my least favorite episodes. The ending, where she must choose (and stay in) one reality, does redeem the episode a bit because people in both realities make compelling arguments about how the other reality is unrealistic.

Impossible Planet - two star hustlers try get a big payday by fulfilling an aging woman’s dream of visiting a long-gone Earth. This felt very much like Titanic, with the elderly Rose recounting her story. Her robot sidekick has a nearly steampunk aesthetic which is interesting. Its weird ending doesn’t make much sense unless it’s all in the woman’s mind (which I think it is - the Jack and Rose go up the Titanic staircase ending).

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The Hood Maker - a telepath works with police, but a man invents a hood capable of blocking her powers. Quite obviously channeling Minority Report, but too dark and somber to be enjoyable. Points, though, when the telepath realizes that when she wears the hood, she can have silence. Also, I liked her telepathic interrogation of a witness who tries to block her by reciting “The quick brown fox jumped over the log” only to have her recite the inverse phrase, “The slow black dog bows before the regal fox,” eventually overpowering his block and syncing his speech with hers. This reminded me of the odd replicant tests in Bladerunner.

Safe and Sound - an activist mother and daughter move from the unsecured west coast to the security-obsessed east coast. When the daughter tries to fit in, she befriends a tech support voice, who manipulates her into being an anti-terror propaganda tool. Heavy-handed and preachy, one of the least enjoyable episodes in the series.

Autofac - after a nuclear war, survivors try to stop an automated factory from polluting their environment by abducting a customer-service android and convincing it to shut down the factory. Autofac starts somewhat badly, with text exposition, but does congeal and pull off an unexpected twist near the end. It’s one of the few series episodes which sticks the landing.

As a whole, it’s a bit of an Outer Limits collection of shorts, some good, some not. I don’t think it’s competition for Black Mirror, simply because Black Mirror episodes like USS Callister are in a different league than Electric Dreams. But, with tighter writing, shorter episodes, and more Crazy Diamond/Commuter and less Safe and Sound, Season 2 could be Black Mirror competition Still, worth a watch if you’re a sci-fi fan.