This review contains spoilers.
1.5 Real Life
If you’re a glassy-eyed wreck suffering from equal parts PTSD and survivor guilt, don’t rely on your own subconscious to conjure you up a relaxing psychic holiday. You may as well book a world cruise through Boko Haram instead of Thomas Cook.
However unwise, that’s what traumatised cop Sarah (Anna Paquin) does in the opening segment of Real Life, the fifth Electric Dreams story, written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by Jeffrey Reiner. Still visibly shaken a year after fifteen of her colleagues were killed in a police massacre, Sarah agrees to take an experimental VR trip out of her mind. Think of it as a vacation, says wife Kate (Rachelle Lefevre), based on your secret desires.
Some vacation. It turns out that Sarah’s secret desire is to torment herself for having lived—in a cushy apartment with a beautiful wife and a flying car—through the attack that killed her colleagues.
Deep down, says this episode, we all want to punish ourselves for our sins. None of us truly thinks we deserve happiness, so we engineer ways to punish ourselves. In our world, that might mean sabotaging healthy relationships or repeatedly pursuing unhealthy ones. In a sci-fi world, it means trapping yourself in a VR dream in which your wife was kidnapped and brutally murdered while you were cheating on her with Lara Pulver.
That’s Sarah’s holiday destination. She wakes up in more or less present-day Chicago as tech mogul and widower George Miller (Terrence Howard), whose prototype VR headset later sends him/her back to the future. In both worlds, she’s married to the same woman, goes to the same retro diner, and tracks the same gangland kingpin (Guy Burnet, whose character goes by the amusingly unthreatening name of Colin), to the same warehouse.
Doubt is quickly raised over which world is real. Is Sarah dreaming she’s George or is George dreaming he’s Sarah? She/he has a choice to make: which seems the more likely – being a kickass super-cop in a Blade Runner-inspired futuristic world or a billionaire vigilante with a tragic past?
Eventually, ‘George’ decides that his grief and guilt-filled life must be the real deal so there he stays, cutting off Sarah’s route back to the wife and partner waiting for her in reality. Sarah’s need to punish herself condemned her to a life of misery and an unwitting kind of suicide. It’s a therapy-steeped message that puts a modern twist on Philip K. Dick’s original story, Exhibit Piece.
PKD’s was also the story of George Miller, an historian in the future who dreamed of life back in the twentieth century. When faced with the choice between living in his present or retreating to the past, George also opted for the fantasy, with dubious results. (It’s clear at the midway point in this series that PKD’s short stories aren’t really being adapted here, they’re more like germs used by the writers to sprout their own creations. ‘Inspired by’ has it right.)
This episode drapes its analysis-literate message over a familiar sci-fi framework. ‘Am I still dreaming?’ is a well-used premise, and audiences are hip to its tricks—repeated songs, mirrored images, uncanny instances of deja-vu. Real Life hits all these marks, which leaves it feeling somewhat generic and lacking in surprises, despite looking the business.
Sarah and George’s worlds, in fact, resemble nothing so much as glossy US pilots on the FOX network destined for cancellation before picking up their ‘back nine’. A futuristic cop thriller and a super-rich crime-fighter seeking revenge for the murder of his loved one? You can picture the billboards now.
Real Life knows this of course, and admits as much, lampshading the Bruce Wayne parallel and including a few meta-stabs at Sarah’s “hot lesbian sex in some sci-fi paradise” set-up. Doing so either reveals some knowing wit in operation behind the scenes, or is an attempt to have its hot lesbian sex cake and eat it – you decide.
The same goes for the dialogue – is it deliberately clichéd (“The massacre affected the entire department. Three of the guys were in my class at the academy”) to tease us as to whether Sarah’s world is real or not, or is it just… bad?
What is original and thought-provoking about the story is its dauntingly bleak message about happiness and self-sabotage. In his best work, Battlestar Galactica, Ron D. Moore investigated just these kinds of observations and existential conundrums through a sci-fi lens, and that’s what he and director Jeffrey Reiner have done in this slick, expensive-looking but uneven instalment.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Crazy Diamond, here.