Apparently Amazon was tired of Netflix having all the sci-fi fun, since they recently acquired their own decidedly Black Mirror-esque anthology series, Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, premiering Jan. 12. (Both anthologies started on Britain's Channel 4 before being picked up by American streaming services.) Bryan Cranston's episode of Electric Dreams, "Human Is," is a perfect example of the new anthology's sensibilities, blending big name TV stars with lush production values and a futuristic plot to create a thought-provoking allegory for our own present times. It also features a wide-ranging performance by Cranston that will remind you of both his most famous roles at the same time.
Created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander), Electric Dreams (executive producer: Lila Rawlings) — like Black Mirror (producer: Annabel Jones) before it — is structured around an organizing principle. While for the Netflix series that's the loose theme of "technology," Electric Dreams boasts a bit of a tighter cohesion: the short stories of legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, whose works have also inspired such classic films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Each standalone episode of Electric Dreams is based on a different story by Dick, each adapted and brought to the screen by different writers and directors like Harry Potter And The Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne, Game Of Thrones director Alan Taylor, and Mudbound filmmaker Dee Rees.
"Human Is," the sixth episode of Electric Dreams' first season, was written by Jessica Mecklenburg (Stranger Things) and directed by Francesca Gregorini (Human). Based on the 1955 short story of the same name, first published in 1955 in the pages of pulp sci-fi magazine Startling Stories, it stars Cranston as Silas Herrick, a commander on a future Earth who leads armies onto a distant planet to plunder their natural resources that are the key to replenishing our planet's own poisoned atmosphere. Silas is as cold and militaristic with his wife, Vera (Essie Davis), as he is on the battlefield; but when he returns from a botched mission that came under attack by the alien Rexorians, Silas seems to have undergone a suspicious personality transplant.
Is the newly warm and loving Silas a sign that his body has been taken over by an alien? Or is his improved demeanor simply the result of a man who had a close brush with death? And even if Silas has been replaced by an alien, which version of the man is more "human": the one who emotionally terrorizes his wife, or the one who would gladly give his own life for hers? These are the thorny philosophical questions that "Human Is" raises in its hour-long run time, all of them anchored by Cranston's performance, by turns chilling and heartbreaking.
The Emmy-winning actor has had quite the varied career, making a name for himself as goofy dad Hal on the classic FOX sitcom Malcolm In The Middle, only for him to distance himself from that role with the increasingly maniacal Walter White on AMC's seminal series Breaking Bad. Watching "Human Is" is like watching Cranston's career trajectory in reverse, as he transforms from the terrorizing tyrant into the loving husband before the viewers' eyes.
Some episodes of Electric Dreams can get quite large in scope; "Human Is" feels like a chamber piece in comparison, an intimate relationship drama between a husband and a wife. Cranston, who also works behind the scenes on Electric Dreams as an executive producer, explained to Variety why he was drawn by this story in particular to appear in front of the camera. "It's very sweet and small in scope compared to the other shows," he told the publication in a September interview. "It really examines the condition of what makes up a human being. I think I was attracted to it because in these anxious times there's something we need to get back to: non-cynical storytelling. I think people will be in tune to it because of that."
"Human Is" also boasts performances from Game Of Thrones alums Essie Davis (Lady Crane) and Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth); other episodes of the anthology include such famous faces as Richard Madden (Game Of Thrones' Robb Stark), Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Greg Kinnear, Vera Farmiga, and Janelle Monáe. If one episode isn't to your liking, chances are another will be; that's the great thing about anthologies! But if you're a TV fan, it's a safe bet that you'll love "Human Is" just to watch Cranston's incredible range as an actor condensed into one hour-long episode.