Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ and ‘The Unknown Girl’


Adapted from the shorter works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, “Electric Dreams” covers the author’s typical concerns about what reality is and where humanity begins — Dick was particularly fascinated by artificial intelligence and hallucinogens. Translating these into a modern anthology series which takes some cues from “Black Mirror,” “Electric Dreams” doesn’t so much tell cautionary tales as reveal every human as a self-contained cautionary tale.

The best episode stars the ever-compelling Timothy Spall as a railway worker, whose encounter with a mysterious woman asking for a ticket to a train station that doesn’t exist sends him into a dark flirtation with solving the problems of his life through shedding the hard parts.

In another of the best episodes, Karin Anglin deals with the trauma of her police work by retreating into a computer-simulated dream world programmed to create a simulation based on the user’s deepest desires. But what if the user’s desire is to not ignore reality and to deal with problems? That’s what seems to be happening, as her vacation from reality takes the form of life as an equally traumatized person, and the realities begin to piggyback on each other.

It’s stories like these that make “Electric Dreams” remarkable from the standpoint of emotional examinations. The series is an argument for embracing the human condition as one of pain, and from there comes the beauty, and it points to the central concern of the series. Less science fiction than surrealist, it presents the nexus point of reality and dreams as a psychological one, where either is indistinguishable from the other as people parse their intangible, secret selves in places they can actually touch.


Doctor Jenny Davin (Ad le Haenel) works in a small practice in Belgium that services a variety of inner-city people, including some hard-luck cases. The doctor who owns the practice is on the cusp of retiring, but Jenny is making a major career move to an appointment at a hospital. She’s smart, efficient, upwardly mobile.

That all changes one night when Jenny urges her intern to ignore a knock at the practice door after hours — she doesn’t want to be delayed to the welcome soiree at the hospital, her moment of glory — and the next day, the woman at the door turns up dead.

What follows is a story of obsession — partly to find out what happened to the woman, whether it was murder or accident, whether her family knows where she is and whether the victim has a story that can be told — but also for Jenny’s penitence.

And so, it is a tale of guilt, of losing sight of what one owes the people around them, of social responsibility. Jenny’s investigation works parallel to the police, almost obstructive to their goals, and so focused on her own redemption that it raises the question of whether righting a wrong can sometimes be caused by the same hubris that created the wrong in the first place.

Directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne have previously worked through similar emotional territory with great films like “The Kid With A Bike” and “L’Enfant.” Meanwhile, Haenel gives a convincing performance as Jenny, determined, but blind to her own lack of experience. She’s a good doctor, and may well end up being a good investigator, but a woman’s death and Jenny’s plunge into the secrets of others might end up being more experience than she can handle.

Originally published at

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