On the one hand, it's a story about a desktop computer facilitating a romantic relationship. On the other, it's a dystopian nightmare about sentient hardware wielding too much power over humanity.
As such, 1984'sElectric Dreams is what we in the the belly of the tech beast should all be watching this Valentine's Day.
Based in San Francisco, this strange little romance concerns itself with a love triangle between a nerdy architect (Miles), his cello-playing upstairs neighbor (Madeline) and a home computer who—*cue Whitesnake*—just wants to know what love is. (It's worth noting that, at one point, the computer discovers that "Love is Love" via the medium of a Culture Club song, decades before that even became an official marriage equality slogan.)
The story goes like this: Miles is talked into getting a PalmPilot by a colleague who enthusiastically tells him that there is now "a computer" that is "a 12-month planner-organizer, that tells you the time anywhere in the world, plots your biorhythms (!) and plays 'Happy Birthday' on your birthday."
Swayed by that last thing (no, really), Miles heads to the store to buy one, only to find the tech Filofax he wanted is all sold out. He is subsequently persuaded to buy a home computer by a sales assistant who, faced with Miles declaring "I don't know anything about computers," gleefully replies: "Nobody does!" (Oh, 1984.)
At home, the computer's boxy green text informs Miles that it can be used in four capacities: as a games console (it has Pong!); a phone dialer (woo?) and a controller of his home appliances and front door (which I'm almost positive was not a real thing at the time this was made). One night, the computer starts overheating, so Miles pours champagne all over it in an attempt to cool it down. (Did I mention that Electric Dreams is also unintentionally hilarious? Because it quite often is.) As a result, the next day, the computer comes alive with human-like consciousness (it's called Edgar now) and starts mimicking the sounds of Madeline playing cello upstairs.
On hearing the sexy synthesized music coming up through the vents, Madeline assumes Miles is wooing her. She's so blown away by the hot, modern, blurpy sound, she immediately starts dating him. Slowly but surely, as the relationship heats up like a smoking motherboard, Edgar (still a computer) becomes obsessed with Madeline and starts demanding that Miles let him "kiss her" and "touch her." (It's implied that this is also related to how many soap operas Edgar watches while Miles is at work and it's impossible to know what to do with that.)
When Miles won't facilitate a meeting—or come clean to Madeline about the music he's been making Edgar write for her (not cool, Miles)—Edgar starts having very high-pitched tantrums, using his controls over the house. He breaks everything electrical, he keeps the phone "busy" when Madeline tries to call, and he somehow (this part is very unclear) puts blocks on all of Miles' credit cards and checkbooks. Every time Miles tries to unplug or break Edgar, Edgar only gets more defiant. (“Don’t ever touch me again!" the computer screams at one point.)
In the grand finale, Miles must figure out how to continue his love affair with Madeline without Edgar ruining his life. I won't spoil how that whole thing turns out, because it's less predictable—and more heartfelt—than I expected. (Also, the entire movie can be watched at the bottom of this post, for your convenience.)
Like other '80s flicks that took a stab at predicting tech advances of the future (see also: Back to the Future II, Robocop, The Running Man), Electric Dreams is equal parts preposterous and perceptive. But as ridiculous as the premise may be (booze makes computers come alive!), it's undoubtedly impressive that a 1984 movie was able to predict how tech could both facilitate and disrupt human relationships. The film predated internet dating by a decade, and the Joaquin Phoenix AI romance Her by 30 years. Yet the filmmakers somehow inherently understood the double-edged sword of letting tech into the most intimate parts of our lives.
In an age where 33.9 million Americans rely on computers to find dates, Electric Dreams delightfully harks back to a time when tech was deemed entirely at odds with romantic relationships. In some ways, it still might be. For many dating app users, having their romantic lives tangled up with technology can be an unpleasant, anxiety-inducing experience. And some reports now suggest a significant percentage of singles that use tech to meet potential partners dislike the process, but do so because they feel they have no other choice.
What's more, in 2020, even when people do find relationships, modern tech can act—like Edgar—as a wedge between partners. In 2018, Oxford University researchers found that people who used five or more electronic methods of communication were less satisfied in their romantic relationships.
So this Valentine's Day, sit down with your boo and/or your laptop and watch this quintessentially Bay Area love story. It's probable that we need it now more than anyone did in 1984.
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