TV Review: Electric Dreams - Real Life
PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS
EPISODE 5: “Real Life”
I’m interested to see if this tendency continues (and if this comes to anything about Electric Dreams as a whole), but so far it seems that the two best episodes from the series both deal with reality, dreams, and morality, although in completely different registers: “The Commuter” was a heart-breaking and meditative experience, while “Real Life” was a cyberpunk mystery thriller, and a very well-executed one at that.
It’s an episode that is best to watch without knowing anything about the plot, so I’ll just say that we have two protagonists (Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard) who live in different realities. [SPOILERS from this point onwards] The best part is that the audience is completely unsure of which reality is the “baseline” during the episode. Diegetically, we see Paquin’s reality first, but as experienced SF viewers can reasonably suspect (intertextuality and the SF megatext conceptually explain the phenomenon), this might just be a red herring. A missed opportunity in the film is that in the final five minutes they relieve the tension between the two alternatives and expose one of them as the “original” one. Compare “Playtest,” season 3 episode 2 from Black Mirror, in which [SPOILER] there is no dichotomy (or any number) of competing realities, just deeper layers of simulation, a lá Inception. The denouement in “Playtest” is more effective because the whole setup is different. Nonetheless, “Real Life” is perfect material for a thorough analysis of all the cuts between the realities and the closeups of the dilation-contraction of a pupil: it would be interesting to see if these visual cues corroborate the “surface” reading of the episode (I’m sure someone on Reddit has posted/is working on a post at this moment).
The problems of the ending do not end here: Dick’s writing is saturated with religious overtones (or sometimes openly discusses religion), but it never approaches the pseudo-spiritual bathos of the ending lines of “Real Life”. The closing sentences about sins and punishment, delivered in a shot-reverse shot sequence between catatonic Sarah and her lover, do not fit the fast-paced thriller that precede them, and we do not learn enough about the emotional life of the characters to care enough about them. Maybe thematically the subconsciously willed punishment could work better in a two-hour film, where there is enough time for everything.
I started off by saying that it was one of the best episodes, yet I only mentioned its problems in this brief review. This is due to my (maybe badly) chosen rhetoric to indicate how much I liked the episode by crying about its failures. If the last four minutes were different, this would be an outstanding episode—in this form, it’s just excellent. But hey, who could even say that much about their show?
Is currently doing his PhD focusing on science fiction literature. His research focus is identity creation in Science Fiction and post-humanist explorations of subjectivity. He loves the work of Philip K. Dick and is our resident expert on all things Dickian.