Based on: Exhibit Piece by Philip K. Dick
Producer: Sony Pictures Television, Lynn Horsford
Director: Jeffrey Reiner
Writer: Philip K. Dick (based on short story), Ronald D. Moore (written for television)
Starring: Terrence Howard, Anna Paquin, Rachelle Lefevre
Distributor: Channel 4, Amazon Video
Genre: Science Fiction
Philip K. Dick was an American science-fiction writer, born on December 16, 1928. During his lifetime, he published 36 novels and 121 short stories, with common themes of alternate universes, altered consciousness, and authoritarian governments. Dick died on March 2, 1982. Many films have been based on his works, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1982 and 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Amazon Prime also released an adaptation of The Man in the High Castle in 2015, which attracted much positive feedback.
In 2017, Sony Pictures Television produced (along with Richard D. Moore, Michael Dinner, and Bryan Cranston as executive producers) Electric Dreams, a science fiction anthology television series based on the works of Philip K. Dick. Amazon Video bought the U.S. rights to the series.
Violence/Scary Images: Various fights, including a man fighting a woman and a man thrown out of a window; gunfight, with people killed; antagonist talks about cutting off fingers and making the victim eat it; protagonist vomits.
Sexual Content: Two women passionately kiss and have sex (lesbianism); bare side breast of woman shown, no nipple; bare back of a woman is shown; a man and a woman have sex, but with no nudity.
Drug/Alcohol use: Alcohol
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Overuse of virtual reality; hedonism.
Positive Content: A discussion on fantasy vs. reality
Real Life starts with a very close-up shot of our presumed main character’s eye; a high-pitched hum drones in the background. The eye belongs to Sarah, who presumably hears the mysterious humming. This distracts her from her police partner Mario as they eat in a burger joint. Mario snaps Sarah out of her daze, asking her if she was going to eat her fries. He talks about tracking down a suspect named Colin, but Sarah says the suspects will stay in the city. Mario says she needs to take a break.
Sarah calls for the bill; a holographic version of it manifests in front of her. Sarah and Mario leave the burger joint. They walk through the nighttime cityscape, the background filled with classic futuristic sights and neon advertisements. Sarah and Mario enter a flying car, and she voice commands the vehicle to go back to the precinct.
As the flying car lifts up, Mario reassures Sarah she is not alone. He then recounts a massacre that took place at the police station. Mario tells Sarah he wants to find Colin and the other guys who did this as well.
Next, Sarah drinks some liquor as her wife, Katie, enters their apartment. After a show of futuristic skyscrapers out of the window, Katie massages Sarah, who is still tormented by the memories of the massacre. Katie pulls out a USB-like device, which can allow Sarah to live “another life.” Katie says this goes beyond a simple simulation. Instead, it will be like a dream in that Sarah will actually believe she is living the life of another person. Sarah accepts this and Katie prepares the device. She places a pad (similar to a single electrode) on Sarah’s temple. They kiss, and Sarah presses the temple pad, starting the simulation.
ENTERING ANOTHER WORLD
Sarah wakes up to a fiery scene and a man kneels down to her. In a muffled voice, he calls her new name. This man (Chris) prompts her to get up. Sarah discovers she is now a man named George. Chris leads George though a warehouse district, with fire still in the background. Chris pulls out a gun, much to the surprise of George. But, some thugs catch them and drag the two into a crude office. The leader of the thugs, Colin, sits at a desk.
Colin threatens to cut off George’s fingers, before George finally fights back. After shooting a couple of thugs, Chris says Colin is escaping. After Colin speeds off, George begins hearing the hitch-pitched hum again. George and Chris enter car, but George is confused by the “old-fashioned” steering wheel, attempting to voice command the vehicle. Chris takes over the driving and thinks George has a concussion.
Back at George’s high-end apartment, Paula, who is a friend and doctor, examines Terrence. She asks probing questions to trigger his memory. Sarah is now George Miller, CEO of Avacom Data Systems, a company worth billions of dollars. Paula leaves George, who is still confused about his surroundings. Paula leaves, yet the strange surroundings still confuse George. Chris enters the apartment, saying the police did not find Colin. George breaks down, seeing flashes of a captive woman. Chris says George needs a vacation. Chris then gives George a virtual headset, similar to the temple pad Katie gave Sarah at the beginning of the show.
George is transported back to the future, and wakes up as Sarah with her wife Katie. In the morning, Sarah and Mario again eat at the burger joint. Sarah tells him the virtual world is odd because the longer you stay in the virtual world, the more you remember memories from “living” in the virtual world. Mario gets a notification the suspects are still in Chicago. However, Sarah thinks this is too easy.
Later that night, Sarah and Mario go to where the suspects are supposedly located. Sarah recalls the location as the warehouse district where she entered the “virtual” world as George. Sarah and Mario stumble upon a criminal meeting. They find a “Colin” who is planning to nuke City Hall. Mario leaves Sarah for a moment; Sarah is then attacked. She is knocked out, which triggers her transference back to the “virtual” world as George.
George falls to his knees right before a legal meeting. In the legal meeting, George is accused of being a vigilante, running around trying to find the killers of his wife. His attorney calls this absurd, and says George is still recovering from the murder of his wife going viral. This statement triggers visions of a woman being tortured, presumably his deceased wife. George collapses in the middle of the meeting, causing him to throw up.
Paula examines George again, stating his memory centers were affected. George says he doesn’t remember his wife, only flashes of a video. Paula tells him his wife’s name is Katie and shows him a picture of her. This triggers both happy memories and visions of the torture of Katie. George also remembers his life with Katie as Sarah. Paula says this is just déjà vu and George is not “a lesbian super cop in the future in a flying car.” She says if he puts the VR headset on again, he will risk suffering permanent brain damage. George says he is convinced and Paula leaves. But, as she does this, George puts the VR headset on again and returns to the future.
REALITY BLURS FURTHER
Sarah wakes up in a hospital bed, flanked by both Mario and Katie. She asked what happened. Mario says they won. Most of the criminals are behind bars, including those responsible for the death of the 15 cops. Sarah then asks about Colin; Mario says he put him in a coma. Sarah is confused by the dreamy nature of everything.
Immediately afterward, Sarah and Katie have sex in their apartment. Katie then asks if Sarah had sex in the virtual world, to which Sarah says she didn’t. Katie is surprised. But, Sarah did say she was a man. She also says she was a widower in the virtual world and was trying everything she could to find her killer. She says she never found her wife’s killer. Katie asks if the virtual world was still real to her. Sarah then tells Katie she was also her deceased wife in George’s world. She also notes other similarities between the worlds, to which Katie derides Sarah saying “both worlds.”
Sarah notes George’s world is foggy. The future world is clear and she remembers everything. But, Sarah also thinks the future world is too perfect. Sarah also says she doesn’t deserve this perfect world. Katie thinks the VR is just tapping into Sarah’s survivor’s guilt and creating a world based on that. Katie then states they will go to the medical bay tomorrow. There, they will remove any traces of the program from her memory implants. Sarah is unsure, but Katie implores her to trust her.
Later that night, Sarah gets up and reflects on everything. As she cries, she taps her temple pad once again, sending her back to George’s world.
George walks out of his company building, taking in all of his surroundings. At a Chicago diner, George meets up with Chris. Chris gives him an update: Malia says the Feds lack enough evidence to press charges. But, Colin left the country. George gets a burger and fries, and notices similarities to the future world. It registers in his mind something is not right about this world.
George returns home and sees Paula in his apartment. She hid the VR headset from George. George wants to go back to the future world, which he believes is the real world. Paula insists this is the real world and he simply wants go back to a place where his wife is still alive. George demands Paula give the VR headset back, which she obliges. She warns him the brain damage will be permanent. She also cautions the future world is a little too perfect.
Paula asks why George needed the VR headset to go back to the “real” world. George says he doesn’t know; he suggests something may be wrong with the program. He prepares to put the headset back on, but Paula says he will never come back. George then sees in flashbacks that him and Paula were lovers. Paula adds they had an affair while he was still married to Katie.
Paula also reveals Colin kidnapped Katie because he wanted the decryption software from George’s company. But George didn’t want to give it to Colin, resulting in the death of his wife. Paula makes a point about which world is real: The one where George is heartbroken over the death of his wife or the perfect “fantasy” where Katie is still alive.
Paula says at the end of the day, it is ultimately his choice. But, he will be in a permanent coma if he chooses to put on the VR headset again. Paula offers to help George cope with the pain. George whispers to himself he doesn’t deserve to live in the perfect, future world. Paula says they deserve to live in this world, with George adding as “punishment for our sins.”
George then smashes the VR headset. Immediately, Katie screams for Sarah. Sarah is revealed to be comatose on a futuristic medical bay with electrode pads attached to her head. Katie and Mario stand next to her. Katie pleads for Sarah to come back to her. But, her doctor says Sarah’s neural pathways have shut down and there’s nothing more they can do.
Mario wonders why Sarah chose to live a life of pain. Katie said she wanted “to be punished for her sins, real and imagined, surviving, being happy”. Mario states being happy is not a sin. Katie then responds that everyone is a sinner, and everyone thinks they needs to be punished for their sins, even imagined sins. Katie kisses Sarah, leaving her wife in a comatose state.
The opening sequence sets the mood for the first episode. It reminded me of the surreal The Outer Limits opening from the 90’s. It is a bit dated, but the graphics offset this. On that note, the episode order for Amazon Video is significantly different than the original airing order on United Kingdom’s Channel 4.
Real World isn’t really anything special. But, it serves the purpose of a first episode: It sparks my interest in the rest of the series. I really want to see if the other directors and writers have something unique to serve to the world of science fiction.
It is a classic virtual reality story. The conceit lies in figuring out which world is the real world. And thus, the audience must figure out this puzzle along with the protagonist. But, virtual reality and the subsequent seeking out the truth is not anything new. For example, Ready Player One, Lawnmower Man, and even The Matrix. One can argue when Dick first wrote such stories, the trope was not mainstream. But, now it is.
Anna Paquin and Terrance Howard do an excellent job as “dual” protagonists, as expected. The supporting cast holds up really well too. The cinematography works; nothing really stands out as spectacular. This is similar with the soundtrack. It doesn’t distract, but it isn’t so good I want to seek it out.
I liked the special effects, although I believe they could have been used better. Whenever they show something futuristic, it’s always imposed onto a scene. For example, the initial future cityscape after the diner does help establish the setting. They were definitely going for a Blade Runner vibe, rightfully. But I never felt immersed in this future. For example, I do not care for the 2015 movie Tomorrowland as a whole. But, I did feel immersed in that future world when shown. Of course, this could be due to a limited budget for Electric Dreams.
IN LIGHT OF “EXHIBIT PIECE”
Real Life is loosely based on the short story “Exhibit Piece” written by Philip K. Dick. It was first published in the August 1954 issue of Worlds of Science Fiction. I say loosely very strongly. I will not summarize the entire short here, but (as it is in the public domain) the short story text is available with a simple Google search. Also, a dramatic reading is available from SSFaudio.
I would have preferred something closer to the original source material than what was in this episode. The only thing that really resonates in both Real Life and “Exhibit Piece” is the fact the main character questions and attempts to escape his/her reality. Beyond that, the two stories are vastly different. I understand video is a different medium than a traditional text story. Nevertheless, I am a little sad the director didn’t see the potential of the original short story.
The original Twilight Zone adapted short stories really well, without destroying the integrity of the original. A closer TV adaptation could have expanded on character empathy for Miller, the main character of “Exhibit Piece”. Also, I would have loved to see a modern take on the idyllic 1950’s American world from the short. For example, maybe we could see a dreamy 1950’s to emphasize the main character questioning what is real. Instead, we get a typical story of someone abusing VR like a drug, resulting in the blurring of reality.
But, Real Life does one thing I really don’t like in comparison to the original short story. Real Life has a clear resolution that the future world is the real world. “Exhibit Piece” carries no clear distinction as to which world is real. Honestly, I prefer unclear endings in these kinds of stories, as I believe they make the audience think more about the narrative as a whole and what they would do.
Real Life adds a moral conclusion that is not present in “Exhibit Piece”. It is implied pleasure and happiness are the better aim of humanity, not suffering. In other words, hedonism. Sarah rejects the real world (or truth) by embracing the pain of existence. Katie says Sarah is punishing herself for her sins, “real or imagined.” This results in Sarah being condemned to a comatose state for an indefinite time. Mario reinforces this, stating it is not a sin to be happy. Even the lesbianism of Sarah falls under this category, as this is framed as being part of her perfect, happy life.
Of course, it isn’t a sin to be happy. But, we also experience pain, disappointment, and suffering in this world as well. But, we as believers are called to have a different reaction. 1 Peter 1:6-7 (NKJV) says “in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The trials are meant to refine our faith. We are supposed to rejoice in these things, a stark contrast to hopeless, hedonistic reaction to pain. I confess, rejoicing in trials is not the easiest thing to do. But, there is a purpose and reward.
One theme present in both the original story and the episode is questioning reality. In fact, this is a common aspect in many of Philip K. Dick’s works. I could not help but think about this theme in light of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says, “we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Many times, we get caught up in this temporary world. This present world is the virtual world in a sense. However, we forget about the things of God and the eternal world. This invisible world is the real world. In fact, this is our real home as believers.
The Bottom Line
As with any first episode, Real Life does what it is supposed to do: Make me interested in the rest of Electric Dreams. This episode is good, but not great. Watching Anna Paquin and Terrance Howard play the same character was fun. This is an anthology series, so I am looking forward to better things in the next episode with other directors and writers. But, if this is the pinnacle of the series, you will probably be disappointed.