Electric Dreams

March 8, 2012

Electric Dreams is not a bad idea for a movie. In fact, it could have been something special if handled with care.

It’s about this young architect (Lenny von Dohlen) who rigs up a computer in his home—a computer that turns out to be unusually advanced for its tender age. At the same time, a gorgeous cellist (Virginia Madsen) moves in next door.

One afternoon, the cellist is practicing and the computer overhears. It starts to imitate her music, and transmits some harmonies that waft through the walls. By the time the interface is over, the computer is in love with the cellist.

The cellist is knocked out, too, but she thinks it’s the architect who created the music. He is content to let her think just that, but pretty soon the computer really gets its circuits overloaded, because it wants the girl.

There are a few agreeably weird ideas floating around here, most of which come to naught. Watching this movie, you don’t have to be told that director Steve Barron is a veteran of more than 100 music videos to see that the characters and their problems exist on a surface level only. The tone is light and comedic, yet it’s a claustrophobic movie—so much of the action takes place within the architect’s apartment.

It’s claustrophobic in other ways, too. Beyond the three main characters, there are no supporting people to provide relief. There are lots of snazzy technical effects, but most of them are dead ends. They don’t lead us anywhere—they just show us that the camera can do acrobatic stunts.

Von Dohlen tries to bring a stumbling humanity to his role, and sometimes he succeeds. Madesn is not required to do anything but look pretty, which she does effortlessly.

The star is the computer, and the filmmakers have dreamed up some amusing things for the machine to do. It fills its cells with television, so most of its creative impulses come out of commercials. It controls all the electric gear in von Dohlen’s apartment, so when it gets ticked off at him, it plays pranks—such as increasing the power when von Dohlen has the electric toothbrush in his mouth.

The computer develops a voice, and it is played by Bud Cort (he was the suicidal half of Harold and Maude). Cort doesn’t just take over von Dohlen’s life—he also takes over the movie. The computer, sometimes bellicose, something winsome, is the most likable character in the film.

When 2001 came out, people criticized it because a computer was the most recognizably human character. That was, of course, the point. With Electric Dreams, those same criticisms will probably be heard. This time, they may be right. The film is so one-dimensional, it’s hard to know just what the filmmakers intended.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

Does anybody think of this movie, except for the people who bother to post on IMDb? Every hot MTV director got a shot at a feature in those days, and Barron’s was certainly unusual, a comedy that occasional took on disturbing hints of Demon Seed.