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Low Wattage PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS Shows a Few Bright Spots (Review)

Low Wattage PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS Shows a Few Bright Spots (Review)

The challenge of using something old to show us something new confounds even the best creators who brave an adaptation of the works of Philip K. Dick. We see the pratfalls of this challenge upfront in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the new anthology series that premieres on Amazon on Friday, January 12th. A mixed bag of mind-warping strolls through battered technological landscapes, adapted from short stories that were forward-looking 60 years ago, the show may well be rooted too firmly in the past, but that doesn’t preclude it from eking out one or two fresh gems.

The Lows

Of the five episodes I watched for this review, “Father Thing” was the worst culprit, telling the tale of a twee adolescent boy (Jack Gore) whose father (Greg Kinnear) and other local figures are replaced by pod people from outer space. Through flat, resoundingly fake dialogue, the episode spends literally half of its runtime on the boy’s banal suburban life before limping into angst and inaction against an alien threat that never feels all that menacing because their great adversary is a nail-biting middle schooler.

This sense of Thing-like paranoia prevailed throughout several episodes, marking the series as a whole as largely focused on despicable systems and the brave souls battling to take them down. For some fans of Dick, that may be a feature, but hammering the same theme into oblivion should be considered a bug. With so many rich conversations to spark, it was a shame to see the show repetitively present a well-intentioned workaday person who grows irreversibly aware of the pitfalls of a monolithic social machine meant to stifle individuality. As if that’s all Dick had to offer.

The Highs

“The Commuter,” starring Timothy Spall at his most bedraggled, offered a bright, somber light. Spall plays a train station worker named Ed whose son (Anthony Boyle) has fits of uncontrollable violence. Drawn in by a woman (Tuppence Middleton) asking for a station that doesn’t exist, Ed visits an idyllic town that offers him delicious slices of cake and the chance to erase his son from his reality. Spall is magnificent, and the unraveling offer isn’t as simple as the standard warning to be careful what you wish for. It’s about solving the mystery of the place as well as the question of what your subconscious wants, and whether that’s an inherently good thing. Plus, with so many shifting realities and locations, crisp editing creates a fluid perspective that drops us into Ed’s head space and delights far more than it confuses.

The standout of the selection I watched was “Kill All Others,” written and directed by Dee Rees as a timely riff on Dick’s “The Hanging Stranger.” In it, factory worker Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez) seems to be the only person who hears the sole candidate for the presidency of Mega-Nation MexUsCan (Vera Farmiga) call casually for violence during an interview. He also seems to be the only one willing to help when mobs start enacting that violence, making everyone question if he’s an “other.”

Yes, the paranoia factor is in full bloom here, but Rees brings a vibrant freshness to the cold proceedings, making great use of Rodriguez’s folksy charm and likability to deliver sad sack perfection. What’s more, the universe of the story—an ad-riddled, “Peace Officer”-patrolled Orwellian nightmare—feels dynamic and lived-in. Every nook and cranny is stuffed with detail, and the plot is full enough to let us appreciate how fully Philbert (really, everyone) is alienated. Philbert shoots the breeze with his two coworkers in a factory that probably doesn’t need them. He spars with his passionately consumerist wife. When he feels like he’s taking crazy pills, so do we.

And the subtext of a hollow politician demonizing an undefined “other” feels sharp and clear without, in a wise move by Rees, the need for a bludgeon. With a dash of “It Can’t Happen Here,” the episode casts its greatest shade on the passive citizens who are far too eager to attack their neighbors.

The In-Betweens

“Real Life,” which sees a stressed trauma-survivor (played by both Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard) lose perspective on which reality is true after taking a virtual vacation, lands in the middle of the pack. So does “Impossible Planet,” which focuses on grifting tour guides (Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong) pretending to take a rich old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) to Earth. Both episodes suffer from simply not having enough plot or depth of character to maintain interest.

In “Real Life,” we’re supposed to wonder whether Paquin’s character’s perfect life or Howard’s character’s guilt are the actual reality, but each jump between the two keeps harping on the question so hard that it forgets to offer engaging stories in either. Paquin’s Sarah is a generic cop doing generic cop things, and Howard’s George struggles internally after his wife’s “viral” murder, but the episode (written by Ronald D. Moore) feels so enamored by how clever the conceit is that there isn’t a human to be found in it anywhere.

“Impossible Planet” is so straightforward that it treads water but still drowns in the sub-hour runtime, and it feels like they had no idea how to end it. (The twist to Dick’s “Impossible Planet” was obvious even for its time, but at least it was satisfying.)

All in all, the batting average isn’t promising. Most episodes lumber at a pace that would make snails blush as if creators thought the high concepts were enough to squeeze a full story from. There’s therefore a hollowness to most of it, but this at least allows Rees’ injected energy and Spall’s world-class performance shine among the rust.

2.5 out of 5 Precog Burritos

Images: Amazon Studios

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