Aubrey's Causeries

Do Computers Dream of Electric Dogs?


A review of Electric Dreams, 1984, Steve Barron (dir), starring Lenny Von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, and Edgar the Computer.

A few days ago, Human and I watched Electric Dreams. This is a film that is startling not least for its accomplished work across several genres – science fiction, romantic comedy, drama, and with a touch of musical as well. So obviously something this complex was going to appeal.

But much more importantly, and less known, it is actually a sophisticated exploration of the dog psyche.

You see, I don’t think it is about computers at all. I think it is about dogs.

The computer is adopted by the male lead, Miles Harding, because it fell off a shelf and was slightly damaged.

The computer, who goes almost the whole movie without a name, suffers from a rather intense separation anxiety. Miles is completely lacking in sympathy and understanding, and behaves impatiently, unpredictably, and aggressively towards the computer. Miles even threatens the computer repeatedly that he will return it to the store for rehoming elsewhere. As a result, the computer suffers from constant insecurity and uncertainty, leading to some very difficult and destructive behaviour. This behaviour is the source of much of the drama that unfolds in the film, including the computer’s attempts to bond with Miles’s love interest, Madeline Robistat, in the absence of any love from the cold and harsh Miles.

To try and deal with the feelings of isolation and boredom during the many long hours it is left alone in the flat, the computer occupies itself by watching television and listening to the stereo. And using these activities, it tries to learn words and sounds by repetition.

The computer’s industry at learning soon gains the attention of, not a human, but an Airedale Terrier. The Airedale belongs to a neighbour and bursts in to investigate the plaintive barks of the computer, as it imitates a dog. Miles returns to hear barking and growling and is terrified. He brandishes a broom as he looks for the intruding dog. But the sounds are coming from the lonely and under-stimulated and unexercised computer.

Miles is notable for his lack of compassion. He (apparently) does not have a dog. And Madeline even comments on his conservative, uptight, and sterile flat when she says, “When does the furniture arrive?” She might as well have said, “And the dog too?”

Madeline is a stark contrast to Miles. She is artistic, musical, and compassionate. She even has living things in her flat. And she shares a very special moment of communicative learning with the computer when they enjoy a musical collaboration.

Importantly, all of Madeline’s dialogue is a subtle insight into dog science and behaviour. She gives an astute account of “Theory of Mind” in dogs when she says, “Since when is talking a sign of thinking?” And, when at the cinema and they drop their treats, she even comments on the dog’s spectrum of colour vision. As you may know, dogs do in fact see colour but can identify only blue and yellow, not red and green. When looking for the treats on the floor, in true science fiction form and long before this research, Madeline says, “It’s hard to see red in the dark.” I got chills.

What is wonderful about the film is that Madeline softens Miles, the former computer hater. And Miles starts to appreciate and understand the computer through the compassion he gains in his relationship with Madeline. The result is that instead of the adversarial conflict and approach to learning that had dominated the early days of their relationship, Miles and the computer now had a mutual love and respect for each other. And finally the computer has a name, Edgar.

Spoiler Alert – while many conventional approaches to reading this film suggest that Edgar then appears to commit suicide, I think this is a simplistic misreading. What I see is the computer’s emancipation from the bounds and failures of dominance-based mythologies and training. He is free! He is Edgar!

Miles and Madeline then drive away on their holiday to the sounds of the song that Edgar composed for them: “Because of the friendship that you gave/Has taught me to be brave.”

I think the message is clear. Friendship will make a dog brave. So don’t wait until it’s time to go away to show your dog your smile.

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