Electric Dreams S01E04: Crazy Diamond – Brilliant performances can’t save this overstuffed clunker

It’s not surprising that Electric Dreams premiered when it did. Thanks to Blade Runner 2049 interest in Philip K Dick’s body of work was sure to spike so it makes sense that this series would take advantage of that hype. After all, the original Blade Runner is responsible for how we imagine sci-fi dystopias: massive video billboards, smog, flying cars, and lots of rain. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, showed how powerful world-building can be in order to anchor the story in people’s imaginations. Electric Dreams has practised this world building with each of its four episodes, though it was the mundane world of The Commuter that spoke to this reviewer the most. So, while I have managed to keep Blade Runner out of these reviews for the most part: mainly so I can objectively critique the series on its own merits, Scott’s film, and indeed the sequel, was on my mind a lot during Crazy Diamond.

There are a number of reasons for this, some purely coincidental. This is the first Electric Dreams episode since the release of Blade Runner 2049, so it is perhaps far too easy to compare these two shining examples of Dick’s resonance in popular culture. For obvious reasons I’m not going to do that, as Crazy Diamond shares more in common with the original Blade Runner, than the grander sequel. Both are a mix of conventions of the science fiction and film noir genres, both feature a disposable workforce created by man that are discovering their own consciousness and want to cling on to life, and both have protagonists that want to escape their lives. Throw in some environmental messages, and you’re looking at two works with very similar DNA. Except that crazy Diamond is working with a different set of noir conventions. If Blade Runner fits in with the Marlowe/Sam Spade detective films, then Crazy Diamond has more in common with Double Indemnity (which gets an obvious reference in the episode).

What stops Crazy Diamond from being a classic adaptation of Dick’s work is that, unlike Blade Runner, or indeed the rest of this series, it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. After setting the bar for quality so high with The Commuter, it’s equally unsurprising that Crazy Diamond doesn’t have the same ambition, or leanness of story-telling. It’s comfortably the worst episode of Electric Dreams so far: mainly due to an overabundance of ideas, and a lack of subversion to the familiar tropes of noir.

Steve Buscemi plays Ed, a down on his luck manufacturer and carer of a “spirit mill”, a farming of souls transplanted into a chimera’s named Jack and Jill. While on the job he meets a Jill coming to the end of her life span, played Sidse Babett-Knudsen (the only actor to be wasted in Westworld), and forms a relationship with her. The catch is that Ed is already married to Sally (the quietly affecting Julia Davis), and they both live in a house that is literally slowly falling off a cliff.  Before we get to the film noir conventions used let’s talk about symbolism.

Symbolism in film is used to showcase the themes of the film through recurrent motifs. Blade Runner frequently used eyes as a symbol for spotting replicants, and also as the windows to the soul. Whether symbolism works within a piece of art is entirely subjective as certain things will be more or less obvious to different people. So, if the symbolism of Crazy Diamond was good for you, that’s great; but I hated it. I talk about world building a lot in these reviews (in order to adapted Dick’s work, you have to be good at it) and symbolism is an important part of that. Really though, the house on the edge of the cliff was a clunker. As was the fact that once Ed had lost everything the house falling down was included. Yet the most egregious example was the tool which Jill used to rob Ed’s place of work. As soon as I saw the glove I imagined the director screaming in my ear: “DO YOU GET IT? HE’S BEEN CAUGHT RED HANDED!” Yes, I got it.

Now to film noir. Jill was the femme fatale of the story, the sexual women that gets our straight-laced, but ambitious lead into criminal trouble. There was nothing inherently wrong with this approach, mostly due to the fact that Sidse Babett-Knudsen is a terrific actor that stopped Jill from being one-note. It’s just that Ed never really becomes an interesting character. He’s mostly passive, and despite a typically fine performance from Buscemi there’s not a lot to him. It’s really hard to care when his wife and his mistress, if you could even call Jill such, were much more interesting. Sally’s “betrayal” at the end hit home much more due to her previous loyalty to Ed. Julia Davis did a great job at creating a sympathetic character that was the one in the marriage that was still living in reality.

Speaking of reality, Crazy Diamond’s structure was the poorest use of dream logic I’ve seen yet. Even with the relative freedom of this type of structure, things still have to make some logical sense. Take the little girl in the forest. She is only there to provide an eerie introduction to the final act and to provide some tension when she is taken hostage. Who is she? Why should we care other than the fact that it’s a child? It’s this kind of sloppy story-telling that sinks Crazy Diamond.

5/10 – While I wasn’t expecting an episode on par with The Commuter, this is the first outright dud of the season.

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