Radio Free Albemuth

The latest adaptation of a Philip K. Dick science fiction novel comes closest to capturing the writer’s unique and unsettling vision.
Radio Free Albemuth
Philip Kindred Dick was one of the most important writers of the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, if you really want my opinion, he was the most important writer of the second half of the 20th century. It certainly isn’t a majority opinion, but increasingly more and more people are beginning to agree with this assessment.

During his lifetime such a notion would have been considered the eccentric opinion of a few literary lunatics, or at the very least, a bunch of nerdy Sci Fi freaks. Yet it seems that genius will eventually have its day, and in the case of Dick, belated recognition has taken the form of a mad scramble to turn his rich oeuvre into a steady stream of Hollywood blockbusters. It began with Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner (1982), adapted from Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? Initially a huge commercial flop in the United States, the film has subsequently became a cult hit everywhere else. Then Paul Verhoeven made Total Recall (1990) from a Dick short story; Christian Duguay made Screamers (1995) from the story ‘Second Variety’ and…well, the list continues, right up to the most recent adaptation, The Adjustment Bureau (Nolfi, 2011).

Among this varied collection of Dick adaptations, two films stand out from the rest as being exemplary evocations of Philip K. Dick’s version of life, the universe and everything: Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of the novel A Scanner Darkly and John Alan Simon’s adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth (2010). And if I was to choose between the two as to which was the more powerful, the most quintessential in bringing Dick’s worldview to the big screen, then I would say without hesitation that it is Simon’s Radio Free Albemuth.

Radio Free Albemuth has only had a couple of screenings in Australia as yet, at the Sydney Fantastic Planet Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Festival and the Revelation Film Festival in Perth in July this year, which is where I saw it. As an independent film production and a labour of love, Radio Free Albemuth does not as yet have the benefit of a large distribution deal. I certainly hope this will change, as the film deserves a big audience – it is the most accessible adaptation of a PKD novel yet produced.

The film is set in contemporary California, or rather, a version of contemporary California, for – as with many of Dick’s stories – this ‘Golden State’ is slightly oblique to the California we know (or think we know). In other words, this is a parallel version of the United States, where subtle differences in history are used to push the limits of social and political imagining in 21st century America.

Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) is a clerk in a Berkeley record store, happily married and best friends with a local science fiction writer, Phil K. Dick (Shea Whigam) who is enjoying modest success. A series of strange dreams or visions convince Nick that he is being contacted by an alien intelligence that he comes to call VALIS or Vast Active Living Intelligence System. When Phil asks him why he calls it that, Nick replies, “Because that’s what it is”. Phil, a science fiction writer who is used to inventing and discarding as many ideas as “planes at Los Angeles airport” is unconvinced that Nick is privy to secret information via VALIS, yet as events unfold he is increasingly drawn into the paranoid world in which Nick is becoming entangled, and he eventually comes to experience first-hand the growing nightmare of a fascist Amerika.

Under instructions from VALIS, Nick moves to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music executive. It is here that he comes under suspicion from FAP, the Friends of the American People. In Radio Free Albemuth’s skewed American dream, the USA is governed by a conspiracy-obsessed President Freemont and a proto-militia of American youth, a miscegenation of Boy and Girl Scouts crossed with Nazi Youth, or perhaps China’s Red Guards. In a turning point in the film, Phil too is investigated and ensnared by FAP and a darker, more unsettling tone dominates the second half of the film.

Jonathan Scarfe as Nick Brady has all the naïveté and burgeoning idealism that one might expect in such a character. His wonder at the visions and gift of foresight availed of him by VALIS is something that Scarfe allows us to easily empathise with, and perhaps even envy him for. When things go wrong – and they badly go wrong – Scarfe gives his portrayal of Nick Brady a quiet, stoic determination that transforms him from a confused player in a mysterious game into an ultimately heroic figure.

Shea Whigam is a revelation as Philip K Dick. I’ve always thought PKD was cool, but I never imagined him as a kind of postmodern hepcat, with a sure line of dry wit and a weary, realist take on power politics. Whigam and Scarfe create a natural bonhomie between Nick and Phil, such that one of the strong underlying themes of the film, that of friendship, is powerfully foregrounded, and we never for a moment doubt that Phil and Nick will stand by each other as the world about them becomes increasingly bleak and dangerous.

Alanis Morissette plays Silvia, a mysterious woman who enters Nick’s life and turns it upside-down, both in terms of a deepening comprehension of what VALIS wants him to do and what Nick ultimately conspires to do with Silvia’s help. Morissette’s performance achieves a delicate balance between a child like, wide-eyed wonder at her being chosen by VALIS and a kind of stoic resolve concerning her part in the undermining of President Freemont’s paranoid regime.

The narrative of Radio Free Albemuth is dense, allegorical and mystical-political. It is both a timeless story of individuals fighting against a corrupt, overbearing State and a particular story inspired by Nixon’s and George W. Bush’s America – or at least, what they may have become, with just a little pushing.

This was Philip K Dick’s genius – to correlate and intertwine the political and the spiritual, the most outrageous and the most mundane. And it is the triumph of director and writer John Alan Simon that so much of this genius shines through – more so, I think, than in any previous adaptation of Dick’s work. Whereas previous films mined a core idea by PKD but jettisoned everything else that makes his work so fascinating and important, John Alan Simon has crafted a film that reveals and revels in the wild flights of imagination and everyday madness that fuelled Dick’s brilliance. What is even more remarkable is that Simon has been able to achieve this using a fraction of the budget of other Philip K. Dick adaptations.

What finally distinguishes Radio Free Albemuth from all previous adaptations is that this film has soul, and I am pretty sure that Philip K. Dick would agree.

You don’t have to be a fan of Philip K. Dick or science fiction to enjoy this film. Radio Free Albemuth should be mandatory viewing for anyone who is interested in vital, independent cinema. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.

Rating: Five stars

Radio Free Albemuth
Written and directed by John Alan Simon
Starring Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigam & Alanis Morissette
USA, 2010, 103 mins

Leon Marvell

Saturday 24 December, 2011

About the author

Leon Marvell is a writer and associate professor of film at Deakin University. He regularly contributes art reviews to national and international journals and curates exhibitions of new media. Occasionally he makes a bit of art himself.