Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams – Autofac

via IMDb

Starring: Juno Temple, Janelle Monáe, David Lyons, Jay Paulson and Nick Eversman
Director: Peter Horton
Writer: Travis Beacham

Review by: Sidney Morgan

This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS. You’ve been advised.

Consumption. The fuel for our economy’s engine. Unlimited wants. Endless needs. Whether real or artificial, businesses make it their goal to satisfy them. The more consumers buy, the more they sell. The more they sell, the more money they stand to make. Companies go to great lengths to make sure they provide you with the ‘best’ products, at the best price, and now turning to automation to ensure continuous (and cheap) flow of products. And the new battleground? Convenient delivery, right to your doorstep, with Amazon spearheading this approach, (drone delivery). But let’s not kid ourselves, though it benefits consumers, it’s all done in the name of profits.

In Autofac, another installment in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams anthology, fully automated factories run by AI continuously churn out products, delivering it to consumers around the globe via an army of drones. Oh, but there’s a little hiccup. In this future, this post-apocalyptic future, there’s been a nuclear war, and there are very few humans left. So you see, there’s just no need for all those goods. But it doesn’t matter as Autofac (the name of the company) was designed to produce and provide, going to great lengths to do so, even though it leads to polluting the environment and using up increasingly scarce resources. And that’s what angers our little band of survivors.

Emily Zabriskie (Juno Temple) via IMDb

Emily Zabriskie (Juno Temple – Vinyl, Horns), Conrad Morrison (David Lyons – Revolution), and Reverend Perine (Jay Paulson – Happy Town) have a plan to shut down Autofac. It’s slowly destroying what little Eden they have left. It’s a simple plan: hijack a drone, use it to hack into Autofac’s site and… lodge a complaint!?! (because, as we know, customer complaints are always expediently dealt with, right?). Well, surprise surprise! Apparently, Autofac DOES care about its customers as they send a service rep, a very human-looking android named Alice (Janelle Monáe – Hidden Figures) to meet with the villagers. Things don’t quite go as planned, but our three main characters do end up at the factory. Once there, well, let’s just say there are a few unexpected reveals.

Alice (Janelle Monáe) via IMDb

One of the problems in Autofac is that we don’t truly get to know the characters and their motivations all that well. Why does Zabriskie panic when Perine finds her magazine? What is so special about it? And what about her dream? Did Zabriskie witness the beginning of the nuclear war? If so, how did she survive? So many questions that turn out to be just breadcrumbs dropped on the path to the final reveal. Unfortunately, avoiding to address them as they came up felt like narrative manipulation just to make the reveal more of a eureka moment. What ultimately happens is that the viewer doesn’t get emotionally invested in the characters and ultimately doesn’t care what happens to them.

As with other PKD stories, we’re asked to question our perception of reality. Even though we clearly see this world in front of us, our interpretation of it is wrong, just like our understanding of what it means to be human is wrong. Emily and Alice behave in ways that blur the lines between biological and non-biological humans. There was a clever reference about a ghost whispering in one of the non-biological human’s ear, implying a separate consciousness (ghost in the machine). Unfortunately, and disappointingly, none of these issues are fully fleshed out because the reveal needed to remain secret until the end, at which point there was barely enough screen time left. Thankfully, it doesn’t ruin the story, because there is enough social commentary going on for the viewer to absorb and ponder.

Without a doubt, this episode is an indictment of our economic model. The rate at which we consume is unsustainable. Not only because resources are scarcer, but also because we generate an incredible amount of waste, most of which are toxic to the environment. (There’s a ‘cute’ moment when Alice points out that for an operation as massive as Autofac, their environmental footprint is relatively small. Gotta love that excuse, right?) Our obsession with immediacy and convenience is in part fuelling the automation of factories. Heck, even Amazon, the producer of this show, embraces it and is now looking into delivery by drones, not unlike Autofac (is there nervous laughter in the room?). But other than ‘warning us’ in the episode, there’s nothing else. And maybe that’s the point, which in this alternate reality, it’s too late. The hope lies in our own reality.

Autofac (the factory) via IMDb

Technology isn’t spared by this indictment either. The message is clear: automation and AI-based decision-making can be disastrous. Unintended consequences of those decisions don’t matter, as long as the objectives are met. Autofac is meant to provide, and provide it will, regardless of the costs. Sure the message is cliché, but in this case, it works.

Verdict: Watch it!

Like the other entries so far, the production value is high. The CGI is well done and does not cheapen the episode at all. The actors play their roles convincingly, particular Temple and Monáe who literally carry the show! It’s a good story, and as with many of PKD’s stories, it finishes with more questions than it started with. Did all the factories get shut down? What’s going to happen to our rebels and to the other mini communities? Will Emily reveal to everyone all that happened back at the factory? Do they have a chance at surviving? Or, more importantly, is this alternate reality’s fate avoidable? And perhaps herein lies the true strength of the story, as it attempts to lay the foundation for change.

Sidney Morgan

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