MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN

Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams’ Showcases the Best of What Sci-Fi Can Offer

Amazon’s new sci-fi anthology series is more than just the anti-‘Black Mirror.’

Elizabeth Sisson/Amazon

Science fiction is a genre that has always held a precarious balance between wonder and terror, between the incredible nature of what human progress makes possible and what it could then be used to do. Star Wars and Star Trek have always hewn toward the former—to boldly go, after all—but there’s been a distinct shift toward the latter half of the spectrum as time brings change in how we relate to technology. Black Mirror is perhaps at the front of the charge. Now in its fourth season, it’s notorious for being unforgivingly bleak, to the point that the relative hopefulness in its most recent outing (which, in itself, was quite dark) was heralded as a significant shift in the direction of the series. That said, if Black Mirror is a nightmare, then Electric Dreams is… well, a gorgeous dream.

There’s plenty of darkness in Amazon’s new series, but it’s fundamentally geared toward the light. Like every anthology series, it’s a bit of a grab bag, but there’s something special to be found in each episode, and the heights reached by the best installments are more than worth the patience required to get through the less coherent entries.

If the series’ name strikes you as familiar, it’s likely due to familiarity with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one of Philip K. Dick’s (whose short stories serve as the jumping-off points for the individual episodes) most famous works. The question alone begs a certain empathy and consideration for what it means to be human, which is central to the series in the same way that the exploration of technology and its effect on human impulses is central to Black Mirror. Unsurprisingly, a more generous worldview has birthed a more generous show.

That’s not to say that Electric Dreams doesn’t sometimes fall prey to setting up twists just for the sake of surprising its audience. While “Real Life,” which stars Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard, is fun to watch, the guessing game the episode is structured around doesn’t have any real point to make. The same goes for “Crazy Diamond,” which features Steve Buscemi (showing off a lovely, mellow tenor singing voice) essentially navigating a midlife crisis. They’re not particularly rewarding (though “Crazy Diamond” is a little better when it comes to comeuppances), but they still can’t quite be dismissed. The series doesn’t hew to a single visual style, so there’s something new to offer in each episode even if it isn’t the story. For instance, “Real Life” is fairly muted, as per the cop shows that its characters might be in were they not in this particular anthology, whereas “Crazy Diamond” is absolutely saturated in color. And the music for the series, divided between Harry Gregson-Williams, Ólafur Arnalds, and Cristobal Tapia de Veer (one of the most incredible artists working today), is so varied and distinctive that it’d be worth touring this sci-fi-scape for their work alone.

In fairness, episodes like “Impossible Planet,” “Human Is,” and “Father Thing” don’t ultimately have much of a moral at their respective ends, but they’re much more tapped into the heart of what Philip K. Dick seems to have been trying to excavate in his writing. “Impossible Planet” is easy to spot as a somewhat divisive episode given how long it takes to get around to doing anything, and how objectively small the payoff seems in comparison, but it’s anchored in a single human connection, and the performances of Jack Reynor and Geraldine Chaplin are so finely tuned that I was captivated.

There are certain episodes that feel particularly of the moment, too, such as “The Hood Maker” and “Kill All Others” (notably directed by Dee Rees). “The Hood Maker” spins a tale that’s not too far off from X-Men, positing a world in which telepathy exists, and those who are capable of it are ostracized and persecuted. It takes things one step further by delving into the idea of invasion of privacy and psychological assault, though it doesn’t quite take these themes all the way to the end of the line. Similarly, “Kill All Others,”about political paranoia and Trumpian leaders, is also a story that we’ve basically seen before, but Rees’ direction saves it from seeming stale.

If ‘Black Mirror’ is a nightmare, then ‘Electric Dreams’ is… well, a gorgeous dream.

The jewel in the crown, though, is “The Commuter.” Under the direction of Tom Harper and with a staggering performance from Timothy Spall (a chronically undervalued actor, here reminding us why he won Best Actor for Mr. Turner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival), it’s the paragon of what sci-fi can accomplish in the right hands.

Ed Jacobson (Spall) leads a fairly ordinary existence. He works at a railway station, and at the end of each day, returns home to his wife and son. But there’s a cloud on the horizon in the form of his son’s worsening mental health, which has already prompted violent incidents. In the wake of the latest outburst, Jacobson meets a woman who asks for a ticket to a station that doesn’t exist. His subsequent tumble down the rabbit hole is an exploration of how we choose to cope with trauma and the value of experiences despite the pain they may bring with them, and the best argument that Electric Dreams makes for ceasing to demand explanations from every story and accepting the mystery. There’s a lot in “The Commuter” that’s left unexplained, but that lack of clarity in mechanics is irrelevant when clarity in emotions is so cutting.

Though Electric Dreams is a muddled whole, it has such a bright core that it can’t be ignored, nor, despite my earlier comparison, written off as a Black Mirror wannabe. It’s no wonder that this series attracted the talent that it did (even Janelle Monae, the electric lady herself, shows up in a parable about consumerism), and there’s enough on offer that there’ll be at least one episode that strikes anyone who should choose to tune in. And if you’re still in doubt, start with “The Commuter.” The central thesis that the series struggles toward is clearest in its best episode. “This is guilt,” says one character, in response to Ed’s ultimate decision. His protest: “This is love.”