Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams “Real Life”: Paquin and Howard Get In Each Others’ Heads
Philip K. Dick’s later, and better-known, works often call into question the nature of reality. If “Real Life” feels familiar, it’s because the writers diverged dramatically from the actual source material, a short story called “Exhibit Piece” which is about a time-travelling historian, and chose to tell a story with more in common with “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” or as most of us know it, Total Recall (akaÂ Total Recall) where the characters have neural devices that give them other lives/personas/memories.
Anna Paquin (True Blood) plays Sarah, a cop in the distant future, fixated on catching a terrorist who had murdered a bunch of her colleagues in an attack that she had survived. Her obsession with catching him is noted by her partner, Martin (J. Salome Martinez, Generation Kill) who points out that he lost friends and co-workers in the attack too but she’s completely preoccupied with the case, unable to focus on anything else.
When she expresses her stress to her wife, Katie (Rachelle Lefevre, Under the Dome) convinces her to use a new recreational virtual reality device her company is developing to “take a vacation from her life”. Hesitant at first, she is convinced by Katie’s sales pitch and takes a deep dive.
And then we are meeting George (Terrence Howard, Empire), a game designer in the 20th century fixated on catching the man who kidnapped, tortured, and killed his wife… Katie. Yeah, same Katie only in this reality, she’s dead and he’s apparently suffering lapses in memory and common sense, putting himself in danger in his pursuit of her killer.
His friend and therapist, Paula (Lara Pulver, Sherlock) suggests taking a break from his life by using one of the virtual reality headsets he had designed. As he enters his alternate existence, Sarah awakens in her life.
As the two lives begin to overlap in theme and settings, both Sarah and George find themselves compelled to return to each other’s reality as they become intrigued by the strange familiarity of what they believe is being produced by their own subconscious. Everything they encounter is analyzed carefully. Does the food taste less real? Is everything a little too perfect?
The pace picks up as each protagonist begins to suspect s/he isn’t the real person. Their alternate life is becoming more and more the likely “real world” to them. Meanwhile, in each reality, they have friends, lovers, and spouses trying desperately to convince them to stop exploring the other life, seeing it as a gateway to certain madness.
Katie is (rightly) weirded out by the fact she is dead, murdered no less, in Sarah’s alternative life. She regrets ever suggesting the neural device and trots out all the psychological reasons – from survivor’s guilt to deep-seeded insecurity about their relationship – for Sarah creating the George world to escape to. Sarah, ever the investigator, insists that she needs to go in one final time to be absolutely sure that she is the real person and George is her alter ego, not vice versa.
In George’s reality, Paula repeatedly warns him that the headset is doing neural damage to his already damaged brain. In a heated argument, she finally triggers his memory that they had been having an affair when his wife was kidnapped. Faced with the fact he was, in fact, a bad husband, he realizes that the guilt has obviously created the Sarah world where Katie is alive and he lives the dangerous and exciting life of law enforcement as a beautiful lesbian (?).
Honestly, not sure how that last bit fits in.
Finally surrendering to Paula’s logic, he breaks down and destroys the headset. Paula holds him as he comes to terms with the fact that Katie is dead and gone and he’ll have to live forever with the guilt of her murder.
In the true real world, Sarah’s brain function shuts down as the very much alive Katie, partner Martin, and the doctor watch George destroy the headset on a projection of the neural fantasy world, trapping Sarah’s consciousness forever in the George world. Her guilt has imprisoned her and now there is no way out.
It’s a downer ending but so incredibly relatable which is even more depressing. Guilt is a powerful force in the typical psyche, second only to shame in its longevity in one’s memory and emotional scarring. The issue was addressed in What Dreams May Come in the person of the protagonist’s wife who had committed suicide, the logic being that suicide is triggered by shame and guilt and that never releases the soul.
The 1990 Total RecallÂ film also creates doubt at the front end when “something” goes wrong with the neural implant procedure in the clinic. The question remains unanswered as to whether everything that happens in the movie after that actually happened or if it was all in the head of the now catatonic Quaid.
The psychotic break trope is one that has been used to great effect in other television series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s episode “Normal Again” is given an open-ended conclusion, leaving the possibility out there that all of the Buffy adventures were the delusions of a mental patient. Going back further, St. Elsewhere definitively ends the series with the reveal that all six seasons occurred in the mind of a boy with autism.
What Electric Dreams brings to the table with “Real Life” is letting us in early on the knowledge that one of these worlds is the fantasy and then giving us enough red herrings that we are open to believing it could be either. Paquin and Howard are emotionally investable, each suffering incredible trauma with genuine reactions and desperation for escape.
There a powerful sense of suspense as both George and Sarah try to solve their own brains. The idea of a fantasy that fills in your memories freaks me out a little and yet who hasn’t had the dream where you “remember” a totally different childhood or family vacation that, in reality, just never happened? Philip K. Dick’s brilliance is in taking a common experience that no one really wants to think about and running with it on bionic legs.
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