The 1980s are alive and living on You Tube, which was the only place I could find this film to watch for the project. It exists on VHS, there is a Region 2 copy on DVD, and a 1990 Laser Disc which is going for $59 on ebay. Since the VHS fits the time period, I was tempted to buy a copy from ebay, but then I’d have to dig out my player and I’m not sure where it is. I don’t have a Region free DVD player, and I was not spending 60 bucks to add this to the project. As of the moment it has not had a U.S. DVD release and there is no blu ray. It’s also such a small movie that I feel no guilt that I watched it on my Kindle.
This movie features a science fiction, love story in the brave new world of computer technology, circa 1984. It gets a few things right and it does advance some of the same thoughts about the loneliness of Artificial Intelligence that “Her” expressed. It is also a watershed moment for music video directors getting into the film business.
“Electric Dreams” is a story that takes the idea that a spill on your keyboard and a request for all data available could make a computer sentient. Thirty years later and a lot of experience with computers on a daily basis, make this seem even more frivolous than it was then. Even though this Science Fiction element is here, it is not really the point of the story. The point the story is really making is that we as humans ought to articulate more directly, what our needs are to each other. Considering what love is means having to explain yourself and feelings are hard.
A nerdy guy acquires a computer that has been jarred when dropped, and he sets it up to run everything in his apartment. The computer develops a personality and starts wooing the pretty cellist that lives in the upstairs apartment. As the nerd and the cellist start to fall in love, the computer becomes jealous. That’s the plot in three sentences. After having seen “Wargames” the year before, we are programmed a bit to think that computers are capable of anything. Having discovered that programs on-line don’t always work with the software they are made to run with, I’m sometimes surprised that they can do anything.
I was most interested in the film before it’s release because I’d read that Virgina Madsen was going to be in the upcoming film version of “Dune” a movie that I really wanted to see immensely. This is one of her earliest roles and she is a natural on screen. I think her beauty was often a barrier to seeing what a fine performer she was, and this role showed a lot of that promise. There are several musical sequences where the computer, that we eventually learn is named Edgar, and Madeline, Madsen’s character, exchange their musical skills. We first learn of Edgar’s thinking ability when he responds to her practicing the cello and the sound comes through the shared ventilation of the building. Edgar responds to her by matching her notes in a computer based sound and playing them back for her. This dueling duet was part of the marketing for the film, it suggested a light and fun relationship with the computer and it was shot by director Steve Barron, as if it were a music video. Music video is the world that Barron came out of to make this movie. Having done “Billie Jean”, and videos for The Human League, Toto and Bryan Adams, he was a natural fit for this film. He had to make the idea of longing by a computer real, and the primary tool he uses for that message is music. Animated graphic sequences are interspersed throughout the movie to simulate the way Edgar visualizes what romance can be.
Having mistyped his own name when setting up the computer, Miles is referred to as Moles by Edgar. I suppose we are left to guess whether the failure to correct this is a flaw in the computer that can accomplish so much on its own, or whether Miles is just not competent enough to fix it himself. In the last third of the movie, the computer turns from a relatively benign character into a threatening one. Edgar acts the part of a jilted lover by making Miles life miserable. The look of the computer, the way people interact with their technology, and the general theme of the story all reflect a very 1980s sensibility. The colors, clothes and styles do the same. The biggest give away that this is a thirty year old movie though is the soundtrack. It is filled with music from the Culture Club and Jeff Lynne. I admire and enjoy the works of both artists but there is no mistaking the era that their music comes from. It is heavy on Electronics and melody.
Several threads of story are dropped without developing them. Miles precarious position at work is never really mentioned again after the story gets going. Neither is there any role for the brick he is designing. It is a casual piece of conversation between Miles and Madeline, but it gathers no steam and makes no progress. There is a romantic rival from the symphony that Madeline plays with, but other than a single demonstration that only Miles can see what Madeline has lost when her own loved thing is destroyed, that other character goes no where. Miles himself is an inconsistent character. Sometimes he is bold, often he is self conscious and he gets aggressive a couple of times during the movie.
This is a mild piece of nostalgia that viewers from today might appreciate for the feelings of the time that you will get from watching it. The movie is not really deep but it is drenched in the moods and auras of 1984, so it is a little like a Way Back Machine, it can take you to that time for about ninety minutes.
I will mention that five years after “The Muppet Movie” and two years before “Ferris Bueller”, this movie has it’s own farewell stinger. If you are like me and enjoy those after the credit moments, this will give you a little bit of a smile.