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‘Electric Dreams’ (1984): Retro Review

A young architect with a bold new idea decides to buy a personal computer to get himself organized. Little does he know how personal it’s about to get. It’s 1984’s Electric Dreams.

As hi-tech gadgets became more like household items in the early 1980s, naturally, movies thought of creative ways to turn them against us. In this sci-fi romantic comedy, it’s the popular new desktop computer along with a splash of champagne that turns things upside down. And it starts with earthquakes.

Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) has a vision. Thinking of a way to make buildings safe in an shakeup, he envision a series of jigsaw-like bricks that would keep a structure standing. Trouble is, Miles is not the most organized man. He’s constantly late, can’t keep track of important dates and is hopelessly behind the times. Everywhere he looks, the world is becoming consumed by technology while he can barely use a pencil.

Electric Dreams
Lenny Von Dohlen (Electric Dreams, 1984)

A co-worker suggests he get the latest Casio organizer. It’s pocket-sized device that works like an electronic calendar. It even sings happy birthday. When Miles’ boss gives him a pep talk about punctuality, he relents and heads to the electronics store. An energetic saleswoman steers him from the Casio to something new: a personal computer. He has no idea what they are or how to use one but buys one anyway. At home, he starts to put it together. Once powered, it asks for his name. Of course he’s no good with keyboards and so spells his name ‘moles’ and from then on, that’s what the computer calls him.

Electric Dreams
Lenny Von Dohlen (Electric Dreams, 1984)

He soon learn that it has a lot more power than just a calendar. It can control his home appliances, act like a security system, play games, dim the lights, and more. Meanwhile, a new neighbor in the building is just moving in. She’s Madeline Robistat (Virginia Madsen), a cellist new in town. They meet cute, but nerdy Miles has things to do. He’s starts using his computer to design his jigsaw house. Adding more upgrades, he uses the phone lines to tap into his boss’s computer to download all the information on the server. Naturally, it overloads the system and the computer seems to go crazy. In a panic, Miles pours a bottle of champagne onto the keyboard. It frizzles and apparently fries. All the while, through the air vents connecting the two apartments, Madeline is listening.

Electric Dreams
Virginia Madsen (Electric Dreams, 1984)

Miles does his best to clean it up. In the morning, he heads to work, his computer mostly salvaged and processing data for his new jigsaw brick. Next door, Madeline begins rehearsing on her cello. Through the vent, the computer hears her music, and before long, accompanies her with a synthesized arrangement. She thinks it’s Miles. Drawn to ‘his’ talents, the next say, she asks him out.

What we soon find out is that Miles’ computer has become sentient. Created by the overload and champagne, the computer can talk and think. It’s a shock at first, but once Miles realizes his computer is able to speak and think, he uses it woo Madeline. He has the computer, who calls itself Edgar, to write songs and poetry. But after Edgar gets a little more in tune with love and romance and girls (after watching countless television shows and commercials), he falls is love with Madeline, too. When he sees Miles and Madeline getting physically and emotionally close, it’s time for some action. Despite being unable to move, Edgar has a lot of power to cause some trouble. And trouble it causes.

Electric Dreams
Edgar (Electric Dreams, 1984)

Directed by Steve Barron, Electric Dreams is a simple but entertaining bit of 80s cinema. With electronic technology erupting into all facets of people’s lives, it was a popular theme in this era for computers and gadgets to be the center of conflicts and chaos and much more. Even love. 

Still, the film never really explores the metaphysical implications of what amounts to be a bonafide miracle. Miles seems to be an intelligent man but can’t see beyond the immediate and self-centered application of having a sentient being in his service. There are some darker moments however. This is less related to the profound implications of a living computer and more on the perhaps equally mysterious complexities of human emotions, most specifically, jealousy.

Electric Dreams
Electric Dreams, 1984

Edgar the computer, as it learn and develops, acquires knowledge and experiences, resorts to the more baser reactions when it comes to the love triangle that he feels he is part of. That in itself might be proof enough that this sentient machine has indeed reached what so many robots and androids in sci-fi desperately strive for: humanity. His solution to the dilemma, one that involves a series of other higher emotional states, is seriously profound, and while a film of this sort doesn’t have room to truly consider its meaning, it nonetheless is impactful.

Electric Dreams is a fairly standard romantic comedy with a sci-fi twist. It is a product of it’s time, but is fun and entertaining, but not challenging. It is very well directed and features some good performances, most notably Madsen. It’s one of many movies that could work on an entirely different level in another genre, but even as it stands we can trace several popular movies of today back to it, including Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina, which took this theme to a much more dramatic and realistic level. Definitely worth a watch.

‘Electric Dreams’ (1984): Retro Review


Director: Steve Barron
Writer: Rusty Lemorande
Stars: Lenny von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Maxwell Caulfield, Bud Cort (as Edgar)