'The Man in the High Castle': TV Review

The Man in the High Castle Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Amazon

The Man in the High Castle Still - H 2015

A conceptually and visually intriguing "alternate history."

In Amazon's new standout, the United States is occupied by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan after losing World War II.

After many stunted attempts, beginning in 2006, to bring Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning novel The Man in the High Castle to television, the ambitious alternate history project about a world where the United States loses World War II found a home at Amazon.

The 10-episode series will be available Nov. 20 and it’s a bold, intriguing, visually-impressive effort.

Set in 1962, 17 years after the United States lost WWII to Germany and Japan, Nazis control most of the East and middle of what is now called The Greater Nazi Reich while Japan controls much of the west coast under the name Japanese Pacific States. There is a lawless "neutral zone" slicing through the country along the Rocky Mountains. Americans are occupied citizens.

It’s a stark, interesting concept that writer and executive producer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) developed for television. David Semel directed the pilot, and no doubt both men and the set designers deserve high praise for what most viewers will be struck by immediately: the sprawling, dark and dreary setting where The Man in the High Castle takes place. New York, San Francisco and the neutral zone work as a stunning visual canvas to tell a story of oppressive living under dual dictatorial control. There is a decided lack of color to the series, dominated by saturated blacks, browns, greens and grays. Small touches of color in propaganda signs or the stark white of a cigarette are about the only things that break up the bleak, evocative palette. 

Much of the early appeal of Man in the High Castle is the look and feel of it, an oddly compelling twist on history that gives off a science fiction essence without spaceships or aliens. The disorienting nature of, essentially, American Nazis adds to the jarring disconnect — a different kind of alien among us.

As the story takes over and Spotnitz manages to create a worldview where repressive conditions have led most people to accept the situation. And yet a resistance movement is gaining traction, emerging as the catalyst for the story.

Running with the concept that Dick created is the series' strong point, but there are a few nagging elements (pacing, unanswered questions about why things are so bleak and unevolved, etc.) that rise up once the plot takes hold of our attention and the grand visual gestures of the premise recede.

The series centers around Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), mostly content to live her life in San Francisco with her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), a jewelry maker forced instead to make replica American six-shooters for the Japanese market. When Juliana’s younger sister joins the Resistance and agrees to take a secret, banned film reel called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" to the neutral zone and the so-called "Man In the High Castle," Juliana’s life is changed. Her sister is killed before leaving on the trip and gives the film reel to Juliana, who watches it — and discovers, to her amazement, images of an Allied victory. This starts Juliana down a deadly path of trying to avoid both the Japanese and the Nazis, who unsurprisingly have eyes and ears (and undercover agents) everywhere, seeking to find her and help stamp out any more copies of the film reel and the Resistance itself.

Spotnitz and The Man in the High Castle do a very effective job conveying just how bleak the prospects are for the Resistance. Juliana is no warrior, and Frank — still hiding his Jewish heritage — has no interest in joining the cause. Americans are portrayed as mostly beaten down. The ominous standout characters are Rufus Sewell as the New York-based John Smith, a dedicated and evil Nazi, and Joel de la Fuente as San Francisco-based Chief Inspector Kido, head of Imperial Japan’s brutal secret police. The two men have their respective regions on lockdown. A secondary but active storyline in The Man in the High Castle is the tenuous relationship between Germany and Japan as they occupy the former United States. With Hitler’s health failing, rumors of his successor's likelihood to drop a bomb on the Japan Pacific States has rattled the Japanese who are, we see, pretty far behind Germany in technological advancement (the Germans are using nuclear powered supersonic jets and the Japanese travel mostly by ship).

There are so many visual delights in this series, and Spotnitz and his writing team do such a thorough job of depicting what it would be like to live under oppressive rule in this alternate history, that it takes a while for some of the nagging issues of the series to surface.

For instance, it’s 1962 but it’s not made clear if the dilapidated condition and outdated modes of transportation in the former States is done on purpose to keep occupied citizens down or if it's evidence of how little. There’s no indication that Germany or Japan has also decimated Canada or how the occupants of the middle area of the former U.S. lives. Part of the conceit requires trying to stay focused on San Francisco and New York — a location choice probably not related to budget concerns since The Man in the High Castle wasn’t a cheap production to start with. But after a while something seems off about the year and the conditions, though that’s a minor quibble.

Slightly more concerning is that The Man in the High Castle is in no rush to tell its story (which was based on a single book, though Dick mentioned a sequel to the open-ended story many times and wrote material considered "related" but not truly sequential in nature). It sure seems unlikely that season one will answer the main question at hand — why are the images on the film reel so different from "real life"? To maintain a serialized storyline into future seasons seems to be the goal, and so the issue of just how slowly the first-ever TV series of the book will unfold is a legitimate concern.

Yet you never get the sense that Spotnitz is stalling or has no plan for extending the story beyond the scope of the book, so that’s a welcome relief. It could just be that The Man in the High Castle wants to let viewers marinate in the core issues of the series — such as what it’s like to not be free and what it takes for a people to rebound from utter defeat — and that could take some time.

But even past the halfway point (Amazon made the first six episodes available to critics), The Man in the High Castle is still refreshingly intriguing and worth the investment.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine