Amazon sci-fi anthology 'Electric Dreams' lacks spark

Posted January 3, 2018 11:26 a.m. EST

— Working from the renowned science-fiction author's short stories, "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams" demonstrates that the anthology format defined by "The Twilight Zone" and more recently "Black Mirror" is harder to master than it looks. Extremely uneven, this 10-episode Amazon series collectively proves pretty forgettable -- yielding a concept that, in this age of binge viewing, literally isn't worth losing sleep over.

Certainly, the program feels like a far cry from the writer's famous work invoked by the title, "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?," which became "Blade Runner," although there are echoes of that and other familiar sci-fi themes throughout the run.

The main problem is that almost everything here, perhaps unavoidably, has a been-there, seen-that undercurrent to it. While Amazon did make something intriguing out of Dick's alternative-history series "The Man in the High Castle," the streaming service probably should have quit while it was ahead.

To its credit, the British-American collaboration conjures an impressive overall look in designing dystopian realities on a TV budget, and does equally well in casting episodes that feature the likes of Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Janelle Monae and Terrence Howard. The production auspices are also noteworthy, including installments written by Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica"), Matthew Graham ("Doctor Who") and Dee Rees ("Mudbound").

Still, given the way most of these "Dreams" unfold, the series represents less than the sum of those parts. Even the casting, at times, is almost a distraction -- as if by the time you've taken in the premise and gotten used to the actor in the role, the tale in question is almost finished.

Some of these stories likely would have fared better developed and fleshed out into features (movies based on Dick's works include "Total Recall" and "Minority Report"), and others simply ignored.

Shoehorned as they are into a one-size-fits-all format with each episode running about 50 minutes, "Electric Dreams" seldom lives up to its name, particularly in terms of the kind of closing twists that generally define this genre.

The first episode, "Real Life," is probably the strongest, or at least most provocative, with Paquin and Howard as occupants of a virtual space who can't be certain which of their lives and memories are real, as opposed to an artificial construct.

In "The Hoodmaker," perhaps the most "Blade Runner"-esque of the hours, "Game of Thrones" alum Richard Madden plays a detective in a nightmarish future paired with a mutant telepath (Holliday Grainger). "The Father Thing," by contrast, has the small-boned atmosphere of a "Twilight Zone," with a young boy suspecting that his dad (Greg Kinnear) has been replaced by alien invaders.

Dick's daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, is an executive producer on the show, and has clearly been savvy about mining her late father's library. Still, "Electric Dreams" cumulatively plays less like an inspired adaptation than a calculated exercise -- mining the built-in appeal of the Dick name for, as it turns out, a little more electricity than it can generate.

"Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams" premieres Jan. 12 on Amazon.