Long before Spike Jonze’s critically-acclaimed Her (2013) featured a relationship between a man and computer operating system, there was the little-seen Electric Dreams (1984) that depicted a love triangle between a man, a woman and his computer. It marked the feature film debut for music director Steve Barron and for emerging film production company Virgin Films. While some of its 1980s stylistic trappings date the film, it was quite prescient in the way it shows how technology is prevalent in our daily lives – even back in 1984.
This is particularly evident in the opening scene where we meet Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) struggling to get an airplane ticket at a computerized kiosk. As he’s waiting for his flight he notices a kid playing with a remote controlled car. Barron shows other passengers occupied with electronic devices: a hand-held game console, a digital watch and so on. Sound familiar? The situation today is the same only more prevalent and with smart phones. Furthermore, at work, Miles’ every move is tracked by surveillance cameras.
Miles is a bookish, disorganized architect and it’s affecting his work. A co-worker recommends he buy a personal computer as it will help him get his life in order. His trip to an electronics store is an amusing snapshot of how computers were regarded back then. When he tells the sales clerk that he doesn’t know anything about computers, she replies, “Nobody does, but don’t you want one for when you do find out?” He buys one, sets it up at home and naively trusts it with running all of his appliances and home security. What could possibly go wrong?
One day, he runs into his new upstairs neighbor – a beautiful and talented cellist named Madeline Robistat (Virginia Madsen). Barron makes a point of paralleling her impressive first practice with an orchestra and Miles’ newfound mastery of his PC. After overloading his computer with data from a powerful mainframe at work, it somehow becomes sentient, sparked to life by Madeline practicing her cello, playing with her in a nicely orchestrated sequence.
She thinks it was Miles playing along and finds herself intrigued by him. They run into each other again at the local supermarket and go out for dinner. It’s a lovely scene as they tentatively get to know each other and one can sense the growing attraction between them. His computer becomes increasingly jealous of their developing relationship, trying to sabotage it in initially relatively harmless ways but as the movie progresses, becomes more brazen with its efforts.
Lenny Von Dohlen plays Miles as a shy, erudite guy that feels awkward in social situations, especially when it comes to women. The actor is careful not to resort to full-on nerd clichés and Miles is smart enough and good-looking so that you can see why Madeline is attracted to him. He maybe a brilliant architect but he lacks experience when it comes to interpersonal relationships and she gets him to come out of his shell.
Virginia Madsen does an excellent job transcending the beautiful girl-next-door stereotype. Madeline is smart, sexy and sweet and this is due in large part to the actress’ undeniable natural charm and charisma. Her character is clearly a talented musician that knows how to have fun as evident from the montage where she and Miles go on a tour of Alcatraz and veer off from the group to do their own thing.
The scenes depicting the early stages of their romance demonstrates the undeniable chemistry between Von Dohlen and Madsen. The movie comes alive and is charged with infectious energy in the scenes where Miles and Madeline are falling in love. As a result, we begin to care about these two and what happens to them.
Barron employs several of his music video techniques to keep Electric Dreams visually interesting. A computer animated dream sequence must’ve seemed pretty novel at the time and holds up quite well despite the cheesy music that accompanies it. There’s another scene where Miles’ PC takes over his apartment and stages its own noisy party complete with loud music and light show. Surprisingly, it doesn’t date the movie, but the music certainly does and this is true of many movies made in the ‘80s. He also does a decent job of showing off San Francisco and this creates a real sense of place. This isn’t just some anonymous city but one with distinctive architecture and it would make sense that someone like Miles would live there.
Steve Barron made his music video directorial debut in 1979 and quickly made a name for himself with memorable efforts like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, and “Take on Me” by A-Ha. A video he did for Haysi Fantayzee caught the attention of Rusty Lemorande who was co-producing Yentl (1983) at the time and also finishing up his own script entitled, Electric Dreams. He was looking for a director and asked Barron to do it. The director took Lemorande’s script to Virgin Films, which were becoming increasingly interested in going into film production and within four days agreed to finance it. Two months later, filming began in San Francisco with additional studio work done in London at Twickenham Studios.
Electric Dreams received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “It’s not often that a modern movie has the courage to give us a hero who doesn’t seem to be a cross between a disco god and an aerobics instructor, but the von Dohlen character is a nice change.” In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “In the failure of Electric Dreams to blend and balance its ingredients properly, plot elements are lost (the brick), credibility is overtaxed (the lovelorn computer), and what remains is high tech without being high art.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Electric Dreams also shows us just how digitalized, automated and dehumanized our world has become, and in its light, sweet way reminds us to pull the plug on the PC, lest we become one of the data-debased.”
At the time, the film was criticized for cashing in on the music video craze. Barron said, “The fact that there’s so much music has to do with the success of Flashdance. This film isn’t Flashdance 2. Flashdance worked because of the dancing. It didn’t have a story. Electric Dreams does.” To her credit, Virginia Madsen looks back on the film with fond memories:
“I had a mad, crazy crush on Lenny Von Dohlen. God, we were so…we were head-over-heels for each. Nothing happened, and at this point, I admit it: I wanted it to happen. [Laughs] But we both had other people in our lives. We were very young, so our pining for each other was great for the movie.”
Electric Dreams is a self-described “fairytale for computers” and in a way that’s true as a PC becomes magically infused with artificial intelligence and begins to display human emotions like anger and jealousy. The movie is also a warning against the over-reliance on technology and how it controls every aspect of our lives – something which, unfortunately, is now our reality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still fight against it. Barron’s movie champions human contact over the electronic kind and that is something our world desperately needs.
Harris, Will. “Virginia Madsen on Smelling Christopher Walken, Getting Tax Advice from Arnold Schwarzenegger, and More.” A.V. Club. July 19, 2013.
Mills, Nancy. “Video Director in Virgin Territory.” Los Angeles Times. November 26, 1983.
Pollock, Dave. “The Smoke-Filled Room Leads to Clean Deals.” Los Angeles Times. May 26, 1984.