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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barron
FEATURING: Lenny von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Maxwell Caulfield, Bud Cort
PLOT: A socially inept architect buys a newfangled home computer to help him in his work, but an accident bestows sentience upon the machine and inadvertently helps spark a romance with the cellist who lives upstairs; tensions flare when the computer’s newfound emotions blossom into jealousy.
COMMENTS: Steve Barron has multiple feature film credits, including the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. He has also directed several TV miniseries and episodes. But who are we kidding? If you really want to talk about the man’s directorial c.v., then you need to recognize that Steve Barron is an MTV god. From the dawn of the genre, some of the most memorable, enduring music videos ever made find Steve Barron in the director’s chair. That’s where Barron’s career truly excelled. So it’s only appropriate that when he was hired to helm his first feature film, the result was akin to an extended music video.
Like any decent video, Electric Dreams lives and dies by its montages, and fortunately it has many of them. Whenever nebbishy Miles (Lenny von Dohlen in full proto-David Schwimmer mode) wants to do something, it’s likely going to be accomplished in a montage: wiring his apartment to be controlled by his mainframe Alexa ancestor; struggling to design an earthquake-proof brick; romping around Alcatraz with his new girlfriend. The film’s most successful sequence is a literal music video, a duet between cellist Madeline and Miles’ computer that showcases the work of composer/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder. As editor Peter Honess splices together clips from cinematographer Alex Thomson’s swooping camera to the beat of a propulsive pop tune, the sequences are genuinely energizing, only to be cooled off by the return to the Cyrano-lite plot. It’s not that the movie lacks for dialogue scenes or traditional means of delivering the story. They’re just not where Electric Dreams shines. Those little 3-minute morsels of video ecstasy give the film its juice.
The movie knows it, too, because they let a lot of the story ideas fall by the wayside. Early on, Miles’ technophobia seems like it might be a justifiable fear of a too-powerful computerized singularity with omnipresent cameras and techie doodads, but that concern is quickly abandoned. Miles appears to have a rival for Madeline’s affections, a classic 80s villainous blonde hunk in the person of Maxwell Caulfield, but that, too, never amounts to much. It sometimes feels like nothing that can’t be delivered via montage is worth following. Indeed, the film falters when it has to engage in dialogue, such as Madeline’s determined ignorance toward Miles’ behavior, or the arguments between Miles and his increasingly whiny computer Edgar (although God help me, I chuckled everytime Edgar called him by his typo-induced moniker “Moles”). Electric Dreams is a high-concept movie that doesn’t want to go any further than its concept.
That said, there’s an extraordinary level of foresight at play. Our first look at Miles’ world is one where technology is pervasive and everyone has outsourced their attention to electronics; this is 1984, but the fears of then could easily be the complaints of today. And the breadth of abilities that the computers of 1984 can accomplish are startlingly forward-looking, from the internet of things to CAD to catfishing. A scene where Edgar vengefully destroys Miles’ credit must have seemed like the stuff of fantasy 40 years ago, and yet here we are, in thrall to and afraid of our machines. A lot of science fiction movies have tried really hard to see the future in ways the Electric Dreams pulls off almost as an afterthought.
It’s a genuine shame that Electric Dreams doesn’t have a more prominent place in the conversation when it comes to identifying the most 80s movie ever made. Whatever qualities the film you think deserves the title holds, I can assure you that Electric Dreams has it in ample supply. The fashion and hairstyles, the steady use of jingle-laden advertisements, a young and effervescent Virginia Madsen. And most of all, that synth-fueled song score featuring luminaries of the day like Culture Club, Jeff Lynne, Heaven 17, and a real earworm of a theme song sung by Human League’s Phil Oakey. All that adds up to a movie that has aged into its weirdness over time, reading as stranger in retrospect thanks in part to its unexpected precognitive abilities and Mr. Barron’s skill with a montage. So it’s not a great movie. But it is, like, totally awesome.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Perhaps it’s because the world resembles our own so much, that the fact that everything is just slightly wrong seems intensely magnified. Perhaps it’s because computers are no longer mystical, and the things that the movie tries to sell as ‘what the hell, who knows how these damn things work, anyway?’ do not seem plausible in any way. Perhaps it’s seeing people doing what we do, only they have ’80s clothes and ’80s hair. Whatever the hell is doing it, it means that Electric Dreams is like reading a transcript of an opium dream – you can see real life underpinning it, but the effect is otherworldly and uncanny, and it’s the most amazing damn thing.
Which is exactly why I feel like I’d have ignored if not hated this movie when it was new: all of the things that seem dazzlingly weird about it now were just the world outside in 1984.” – Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy
(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)