Electric Dreams: 108 “Autofac” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
In today’s world, just about anything you so desire can be found online should you want to indulge in some retail therapy. Long gone are the days of people swinging elbows for the last item of something- well, ignoring (shudder) Black Friday- and whatever trinkets you desire can be bought within a few clicks on your laptop/phone/tablet/insert device and sent to your home shiny and new. But what happens when this ease of purchase is no longer needed or wanted, if the world’s gone down in flames for a reason other than the newest phone being out of stock?
Autofac, a title coming, in a continually shocking fashion from the 1955 Phillip K. Dick story of the same name, shows us a world where the nuclear apocalypse has come and gone, the last stragglers of humanity living on the brink- but the factories that sate our rampant consuming tendencies are still merrily chugging away, making products for a populace who no longer wants or needs them. The titular Autofac is a hulking beast of a factory, fleets of drones delivering packages of trainers, toys and everything in-between to the dregs of people still left standing after nuclear war.
For a story written so long ago, Autofac is still incredibly pertinent, adapted for TV by Pacific Rim scribe Travis Beacham, a story for the Amazon age more than any before. Given that Amazon were involved with the production of Electric Dreams I was surprised by how much Autofac parallels with their business practises (and any online shopping, essentially). It comes even closer to the bone given that Amazon Prime Air will be a thing soon, Amazon’s masterplan of sending fully automated drones out to deliver packages. So, it’s a cruel irony watching this masterplan realised perfectly and trying to help us by dumping all sorts of goods, despite it prohibiting the survivors doing anything in this world (even travel is impossible, as the Autofac needs to “protect its supply lines”.
The survivors living next to the Autofac live in a little wood side residency, where the resourceful Emily Zabriskie (Atonement and Killer Joe’s Juno Temple) lives, part of a team with Conrad Morrison (Revolution’s David Lyons) hatching a plan to end the tyranny of the factory. Bringing down an Autofac drone, their plan is to lodge a complaint of “faulty merchandise” to draw someone from the factory out and reason with it to shut down- and if not, just try and blow it all up.
While a little slow in the first twenty minutes, Autofac does a good job of bringing you into the sense of community in this world. Emily’s secret boyfriend Avishai (The Duff‘s Nick Eversman) is the town librarian, Emily bringing back books from their scavenging missions to keep the books for future generations. It’s a world that’s been brought to its knees by the factory- a heated meeting in the town hall reveals that the factory is using up the resources rapidly, alongside polluting their air and water supplies. The oppressive feeling of unthinking robot overlords in charge of the world recalls The Terminator– or should that be the Amazon Terminator- such is the fear the Autofac is talked about. After all, as Emily says, just because the Autofac can reason doesn’t it can reason with them.
Bringing down the drone allows Emily to hack into the Autofac customer service portal- and lodges a complaint that the goodies the drone dropped off were “pizzled”. Naturally the customer service AI has no idea (maybe the best real life parallel this series has had yet!) and Autofac send out a representative to deal with their issue in person, a Metropolis reminiscent android named Alice that looks very suspiciously like singer/actor Janelle Monáe (whose new song Make Me Feel may or may not have been the only thing playing between my ears for a good while now).
Despite the terror felt in the air caused by the Autofac, Alice is all smiles and eager to help (as I suppose every well-meaning customer service rep is). Monáe’s performance is the ideal blend of effortless robotic action and human personality, balancing the fine line of not being quite human. When she arrives, events become a bit more farcical, and the pace increases. Monáe’s line of AI was still being developed when humans met their end, and the human cast can only guess as to what their possible uses could’ve been given how realistic Alice is (including as a sex robot, a possibility which seems uncomfortably, strangely near).
Watching Emily and Conrad try to engage with Alice is very funny, as they open an in-person “complaint” to get the Autofac to shut down, which is noted and ignored. Watching their frustration as she ignores their request is a joy- just how frustrating would it be dealing with the physical embodiment of automated customer service? Monáe is also wonderfully deadpan after she wakes up from a quick snooze, granted by Emily, intending to hack her programming to gain access to the Autofac to blow it up from the inside, quipping that Emily is being a “bit excessive”.
Like The Father Thing last week, Autofac is an episode that wears its influences on its sleeve, but with enough twists to work in its favour. As Emily, Conrad and co. are taken to the Autofac by Alice, we’re treated to a nicely done Blade Runner homage, as we see the gigantic factory towering out of the ruins, drones flying everywhere, reminiscent of the gloriously memorable first visit to the Tyrell corporation’s home in the classic film. The inside of the factory too has a nice, distinct look, mixing strange near-future architecture with the traditional bland factory lines you might expect, with the ramping final stages patiently directed by Peter Horton.
Autofac has more than just visual influences from classic sci-fi, and as it reaches its final gambit the themes in common with the Blade Runner films and the PKD story they came from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reveal themselves, as Alice reveals that all the humans we’ve seen thus far are created by the Autofac as humanity went extinct- they can create anything if they have the blueprint, and that includes people. Emily knew this all along though, and she is in fact the “bomb”- namely, a virus in her head to shut the factory down for good.
The themes of artificial autonomous humans replacing flesh and blood humans or being superior to them have been well travelled, but the closing stages of Autofac that delve into them are well-crafted. The visual of Emily with her head open, a luminescent beauty, telling Alice that the new people are more than just “units in a product line”- they’re the second chance for humanity. “Emily” has in fact come from a template of the founder of Autofac, who Alice claims- with what certainly looks like a mournful expression- was brilliant. Alice too clearly has her own autonomy and emotions, conveyed perfectly by Monáe, and the magical score by Broadchurch composer Ólafur Arnalds elevates the finale an extra level. It’s a sweetly subdued finale, as the spiritual successor to the founder of the Autofac “unmakes” it, a light smile across Emily’s face.
Autofac is a return to form for Electric Dreams, telling a story that feels one of the freshest for modern times, dipping back into a well of themes that has been visited many times in a way that feels relevant to today’s world. Emily’s return to her home lets you in to all you need to know if you had any doubts of these new humans being worthy successors, as she grabs her partner and expresses one of the purest human emotions- the embracing of a loved one. Autofac can boast a pair of performances in Temple and Monáe that are some of the best of the series thus far, one a resourceful, compassionate heroine and the other a not-quite-human who is very obviously more human than she claims. Humanity’s future- brought to you by Amazon.