The film's credits dedicate it to the memory of UNIVAC I.
Miles Harding is an architect who envisions a brick shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece that could enable buildings to withstand earthquakes. Seeking a way to get organized, he buys a personal computer to help him develop his ideas. Although he is initially unsure that he will even be able to correctly operate the computer, he later buys numerous extra gadgets that were not necessary for his work, such as switches to control household appliances like the blender, a speech synthesizer, and a microphone. The computer addresses Miles as "Moles", because Miles had incorrectly typed his name during the initial set-up. When Miles attempts to download the entire database from a mainframe computer at work, his computer begins to overheat. In a state of panic, Miles uses a nearby bottle of champagne to douse the overheating machine, which then becomes sentient. Miles is initially unaware of the computer's newfound sentience, but discovers it one night when he is awaken by the computer in the middle of the night when it mimics Miles talking in his sleep.
A love triangle soon develops between Miles, his computer (who later identifies himself as "Edgar"), and Miles' neighbor, an attractive cellist named Madeline Robistat. Upon hearing her practicing a piece from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach on her cello through an air vent connecting both apartments, Edgar promptly elaborates a parallel variation of the piece, leading to an improvised duet. Believing it was Miles who had engaged her in the duet, Madeline begins to fall in love with him in spite of her ongoing relationship with fellow musician Bill.
At Miles' request, Edgar composes a piece of music for Madeline. When their mutual love becomes evident, however, Edgar responds with jealousy, canceling Miles' credit cards and registering him as an "armed and dangerous" criminal. Upon discovering this humiliation, Miles and Edgar have a confrontation, leading to Miles shoving the computer and trying to unplug it, getting an electric shock. Then the computer retaliates in a Pac-Man like game by harassing him with household electronics.
Eventually, Edgar accepts Madeline and Miles' love for each other, and appears to commit suicide by sending a large electric current through his acoustic coupler, around the world, and back to himself just after him and Miles make amends.
Ultimately, a pop song, "Together in Electric Dreams," written by Edgar as a tribute to Miles and Madeline, plays on radio stations across California.Lenny Von Dohlen as Miles (Moles) Harding
Virginia Madsen as Madeline Robistat
Maxwell Caulfield as Bill
Bud Cort as Voice of Edgar
Don Fellows as Mr. Ryley
Miriam Margolyes as Ticket girl
Giorgio Moroder as Record producer
Steve Barron had made over 100 music videos and would routinely send them to his mother for comment. One he did for Haysi Fantayzee she particularly liked; she was doing continuity on Yentl, co-produced by Rusty Lemorande and showed it to him. Lemorande had just finished his own script, Electric Dreams and was looking for a director; he ended up offering Barron the job.
Barron took the script to Virgin Films who agreed to finance within four days. The film was presold to MGM/UA who brought rights for the US, Canada, Japan and South East Asia. Two months after Virgin agreed to make the movie, filming began in San Francisco. There was also studio work done in London at Twickenham Studios.
Virginia Madsen later recalled she "was very spoiled on that movie, because it was such a lovefest that I now believe that every movie should be like that... I had a mad, crazy crush on Lenny Von Dohlen. God, we were so… we were head-over-heels for each other. Nothing happened, and at this point, I admit it: I wanted it to happen.... He’s still one of my best friends."
The computer hardware company's name in the film is "Pinecone," a play on "Apple" computers, which had gone public just three years previously.
The movie featured music from Giorgio Moroder, Culture Club and Heaven 17. "The fact that there's so much music has to do with the success of Flashdance," Barron admitted during filming. "This film isn't Flashdance 2. Flashdance worked because of the dancing. It didn't have a story. Electric Dreams does."
Barron later said "Electric Dreams was definitely an attempt to try and weave the early eighties music video genre into a movie." He added that the film "isn’t that deep. The closest parallel is probably that it's a Cyrano de Bergerac-like exploration of how words and music can help nurture and grow feelings on the path to love. Oops that’s too deep."
The soundtrack features music from prominent popular musicians of the time, being among the movies of this generation that actively explored the commercial link between a movie and its soundtrack. The soundtrack album Electric Dreams was re-issued on CD in 1998.
Steve Barron later recalled:
Giorgio Moroder was hired as composer and played me a demo track he thought would be good for the movie. It was the tune of "Together In Electric Dreams" but with some temporary lyrics sung by someone who sounded like a cheesy version of Neil Diamond. Giorgio was insisting the song could be a hit so I thought I'd suggest someone to sing who would be as far from a cheesy Neil Diamond as one could possibly go. Phil Oakey. We then got Phil in who wrote some new lyrics on the back of a fag [cigarette] packet on the way to the recording studio and did two takes which Giorgio was well pleased with and everybody went home happy.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 47% ("Rotten") based on 15 reviews.
It received a generally negative review in The New York Times, which said that the film failed to "blend and balance its ingredients properly," and that it lost plot elements and taxed credibility.
However the Los Angeles Times called it "inspired and appealing... a romantic comedy of genuine sweetness and originality."
Electric Dreams was released in 1984 (VHS) and again in 1991 (VHS) in the US, but has not been re-released since. MGM Home Video released a Laserdisc in America in 1985, and Warner Bros. released a Video CD version for the Singapore market in 2001, but both are out of print. The film received a Region 2 DVD on April 6, 2009 by MGM (who owns Orion Pictures and international rights to the Virgin/M.E.C.G film catalog they purchased in the mid 90s). On this release, one minor change was made to the beginning of the film with the initial Virgin Films animated logo and opening lines of "Electric Dreams" (sung by P.P. Arnold) completely replaced by a digital era MGM lion (Ironically, the initial US releases have those first few bars of "Electric Dreams" over the 1980s era MGM "Diamond Jubilee" logo). UK video label Second Sight has announced a Blu-Ray release for Jun 19, 2017, making its worldwide debut. Due to Warner Bros (owner of the pre-1986 MGM produced catalog) US rights expiring and likely being transferred back to the producers, no US DVD and Blu-ray releases are planned for that territory.
There is only one publicly rentable print of the original 35mm film available, as shown at the Prince Charles Cinema in London on 9 August 2012 and previously in Birmingham and Indonesia.
Fans of Electric Dreams have noted the similarities between the film and Spike Jonze's Her. But when asked about it, Jonze claimed not to have seen the former film.
Director Steve Barron later said when he made the film there was a prejudice against video clip directors doing drama, and since Electric Dreams "was a little bit like an extended music video... I didn't help that cause in a lot of ways. (laughs)".
In 2009 Barron said that Madsen told him she was planning on being involved in a remake. "She didn't ask me to do it, so I guess I blew my chance on the first one!" he said. "I wouldn't actually do it, but it would have been nice for the ego to be asked." As of 2016, no remake has resulted.