Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Electric Dreams and Just Imagine: Two Quaint Science Fiction Comedies

In this entry, I'm going to look at two futuristic comedies made more amusing by the fact that they were so of their time. Sadly, neither of these movies are commonly available, but both can be found if you know where to look.

Electric Dreams
, by Steve Barron, 1984

In the 1980's, the dawning age of home computers was all the rage. There are tons of classic movies from the era looking at this new technology, from Tron, to War Games, to Weird Science. For some reason, as time made classics of these films, Steve Barron's Electric Dreams fell by the wayside.

Electric Dreams follows Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), a man who purchases a home computer to help him with his work as an architect. He gets way into his computer and buys all sorts of nonsensical add-ons, giving his computer control of all the appliances in his house. When he spills a bottle of champagne on the keyboard, the computer (of course) gains sentience (and amorousness). The computer, named Edgar, is voiced by Bud Cort. Things heat up when they both fall for the cute cellist next door (a young Virginia Madsen), and a jealous Edgar tries to woo her away by composing electronic songs for her and sabotaging Miles' life.

It's a very cheesy and VERY 80's movie, but I have a soft spot for stuff like this. There are a lot of clever scenes in it, and though it's not a great movie, it certainly has its moments. It has very good music, too. The score is by synthesizer wizard Giorgio Moroder, best known (by me, anyway) for producing a new wave version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, and the soundtrack features songs by Jeff Lynne and Culture Club, among others.

Now I know I said Electric Dreams is not a great movie, but I would argue that in it's way, it's kind of an important movie. You see, director Steve Barron, who permanently has a place in my heart for directing the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, will probably be best remembered for directing some of the most important and groundbreaking music videos of the early MTV era. Michael Jackson's Billie Jean? That's his. A-ha's Take On Me? His too. Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, Thomas Dolby's She Blinded Me With Science... If you're a child of the 80's, you get the picture.

When Electric Dreams came out, it drew criticism for having a flashy, MTV-style look. The editing feels just like an 80's music video. Videos didn't yet have the respect and acceptance as an art form that they came to earn (due in no small part to Barron's work). Flash forward a decade and many of the most acclaimed movie directors were coming out of MTV, from David Fincher to Spike Jonze to Michel Gondry. Now Barron's editing technique is completely accepted and even internalized in the industry. Electric Dreams, though firmly dated by its tone and content as a movie from 1984, is, in a way, years ahead of its time.

Just Imagine, by David Butler, 1930

I'm genuinely surprised that Just Imagine is not officially available on DVD, or even to stream. It's a true curiosity of its time, one of only a few science fiction features to be released in the 1930's, and a musical, to boot.

Just Imagine takes a look at earth in the distant future of 1980(!), where people are named with numbers (this was five years before Social Security), the government chooses who a woman must marry (they're working on that now), and couples order their babies from vending machines (why not just have sex?). Fear not, some things are still the same. The cops are still Irish stereotypes.

Our hero is J-21 (John Garrick), a man who wishes to marry his sweetheart, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan), but must find a way to distinguish himself before the judge chooses her other suitor, MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), a rich, mean jerk. J-21's best friend, RT-42 tries to cheer him up by taking him to watch some scientists revive a man who had died in 1930, who they take under their wing. He takes the name Single 0, and is played by El Brendel, a vaudevillian whose schtick was playing a bumbling Swedish immigrant, which seems weird and totally random but probably made more sense in 1930, because he made a ton of movies. Together, in hopes that J-21 will gain the fame necessary to win LN-18, they make the first flight to Mars, where an adventure awaits them.

The futuristic world is gloriously ridiculous, with wonderful, top notch production design, but as this was a year into the Great Depression, most of the jokes are gentle pokes at the world of 1930. When Single 0 asks if Prohibition is still on, they tell him that the government is talking about legalizing wines and beers. His response: "They're still saying that?"

The musical numbers are a little lacking. None of the songs are about the future! They're all about the 1930's, or things the audience could relate to, I guess. They could have been a whole lot more clever. There's one song, no kidding, about how J-21 wants an old fashioned girl like his grandmother. While he sings this they cut to shots of LN-18 as a modern 1930's woman doing 1930's things. You know, like smoking cigarettes. There is one really cool musical number toward the end, with a bunch of sexy martian women dancing in worship of the huge martian god statue.

Just Imagine is certainly no Metropolis, but it's one of the few cinematic attempts to look into the future we have from that time. Though most of the movie consists of cute observations and sentimentality, beggars can't be choosers.

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