No one born before the mid-1980s can possibly understand how terrifying home computers were at the time. No social change as fundamentally transformative as the computer revolution takes place without spooking the herd at least a little bit, and Hollywood was more than happy to exploit the paranoia. Hence, the cinematic notion that your PC could start a nuclear war. Or suck you into the secret world inside its mainframe. Or even just sit there on your desk… plotting. With all that scary stuff floating across our screens, the trend was bound to produce a couple of turkeys. Case in point: Electric Dreams, a borderline incoherent romantic triangle between a nerdy guy, the girl he loves and a PC he inexplicably brings home to make his life easier.
The film announces its profound distrust of machines early on, with a montage demonstrating just how much our lives are being run on automatic. That doesn’t change when twitchy accountant Miles (Lenny von Dohlen) picks up a new computer to help organize his work. The computer – nicknamed Edgar – soon develops sentience, thanks to a modem hook up and some spilled champagne. Miles develops a crush on the pretty musician living upstairs (Viringia Madsen) without realizing that Edgar has already set his sights on her.
Most screenplays of the era were happy to attribute all manner of magical powers to the devices without worrying about the hows and whys. At times, Electric Dreams tricks that out into a sweetly romantic moment, as when Edgar develops the ability to mimic the girl’s music. Madson does wonders on that front: a luminous presence standing far above the film surrounding her and making us believe that a machine could fall in love with her. At its best, Electric Dreams resembles a sort of Reagan-era Cyrano de Bergerac, as Miles happily takes credits for Edgar’s romantic efforts, and wacky mayhem ensues.
Most of the movie, unfortunately, trips on its own shoelaces. We can accept Edgar’s seemingly magical powers as a plot point: the film makes it clear that it’s a romantic fantasy. More problematic is the way that Electric Dreams utterly fails to find any kind of recognizable emotional tone to develop its central idea. Miles distrusts computers, then loves computers, then threatens to disconnect his computer, then changes his mind, then… None of his shifts arrive with any motivation or explanation; they exist solely to let the scene in question limp forward, and are abandoned the minute they serve their purpose. Similar ineptness hits supposedly romantic scenes, which involve a lot of poor chemistry and awkward pratfalls intended to be charming in some way.
Director Steve Barron compounds the errors with an unseemly sense of clutter. The torturous montages go nowhere and clarify nothing, slathered in a sense of cuteness that devours the emotional beats whole. At times, it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s happening, or why any of these self-contradictory figures even exist. The high-tech sheen to it all supposedly gave it a contemporary feel, which looks like an embalmed corpse in the harsh light of the 21st century.
Beneath it all lies a romantic comedy that doesn’t understand romance, a technological treatise that hates technology, and a Frankenstein-style moral message that utterly lacks the courage of its convictions. Electric Dreams holds multiple potent ideas in its hands, none of which it can properly articulate even if it hadn’t tried to blend them all together. The trick can be accomplished (some cat named Cameron pulled off a similar, though far darker trick a few months later), but nothing about this movie suggests the competence to try. It’s amusing to look back and see how fearfully fascinated we were with this strange little box. The rest of Electric Dreams alternates between missed opportunities and irritating self-indulgence, a mixture that grows increasingly pungent with each passing decade.