'Radio Free Albemuth': Film Review

Uneven adaptation returns the marginal flavor to PKD's pulpy fiction

John Alan Simon makes his directing debut with a shoestring-budgeted Philip K. Dick adaptation.

Adapting a semi-autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel whose alternate-reality plot fictionalizes the author's own experience of mystical visions, John Alan Simon's Radio Free Albemuth attempts a level of fidelity to the cult novelist's peculiarities rarely attempted on film. Where outings from Blade Runner to Minority Report have used Dickian paranoia as the springboard for filmmaker-specific creations, only Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly has retained the on-the-fringe flavor of its source — unsurprising, given the director's affinity for thinkers others view as crackpots. Though it echoes Scanner in a few pleasing ways, Albemuth is a substantially less satisfying affair, one whose longueurs and (deliberately?) cheesy effects work will alienate all but Dick's hardcore devotees. That crowd may appreciate its sincerity enough to forgive its flaws; finding them on VOD will be the picture's best bet.

Bifurcating its creator's experience into two characters, the tale is narrated by Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham) but creates a fictional best friend (Jonathan Scarfe's Nick Brady) to have the visions. As the two men discuss vivid dreams Nick is having, Phil uses his experience as a creator of sci-fi plots to offer possible explanations: "Maybe it was an alternate self," he posits seriously, "communicating from an alternate universe."

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In fact, the visions are being beamed into Nick's head by a Death Star-like satellite run by a mysterious alien intelligence. (Called "VALIS," it would figure in later PKD novels.) Without giving too much away: VALIS is guiding Nick toward overthrowing a corrupt, power-drunk president (Scott Wilson). In this film's version of 1985, a single man has held the White House for four terms, and looks ready to win a fifth, by convincing Americans that the threat of a shadowy "cadre of evildoers" justifies the suspension of many civil liberties. (Dick wrote the book in the mid-Seventies, before the PATRIOT Act was a gleam in Washington's eye.)

Though the picture's low-budget aesthetics aren't necessarily unsuited to this material, first-time director Simon doesn't generate the feverish mood that would make such a paranoid scenario crackle. As Nick uncovers more and more of the mystery — and has revelations that may be nutso even within this context — Scarfe is matter-of-fact, giving Whigham little to respond to as a man trying to decide if his friend is a prophet or a lunatic. Things get tedious instead of tantalizing with the arrival of Alanis Morissette, who plays a stranger somehow involved in VALIS's plan; whatever sense of mystery the film has generated deflates as she eventually spells everything out. Only in the closing, dystopian scenes does the picture evoke the strange mix of despair and hopefulness familiar from Linklater's film.

Production company: Discovery Productions, Open Pictures

Cast: Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Alanis Morissette, Katheryn Winnick, Scott Wilson, Hanna Hall

Director-Screenwriter: John Alan Simon

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick

Producers: John Alan Simon, Dale Rosenbloom, Stephen Nemeth, Elizabeth Karr

Directors of photography: Patrice Lucien Cochet, Jon Felix

Production designer: Alan E. Muraoka

Costume designer: Jayme Bohn

Editor: Philip Norden

Music: Robyn Hitchcock, Ralph Grierson

Rated R, 110 minutes

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