There’s a defining earnestness and conviction that carries the ultra-low budget Philip K. Dick adaptation Radio Free Albemuth a long way. A labour of love for writer/director/producer John Alan Simon, the film started production in 2007 outside the studio system with very little money. It was completed in 2011, and thanks to a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, it’s slowly making its way around the world. It’s an almost slavishly faithful adaptation of Dick (sometimes to a fault) and there’s some definitely cheesiness when the film has to go beyond being a psychodrama and start being a science fiction film, but this is a work of love through and through, and that more than anything helps the film overcome many of its more obvious shortcomings.
Based on a posthumously published and deeply personal work from the writer who gave the world Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner), We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Total Recall), and Minority Report, Albemuth combines a lot of Dick’s most beloved themes with a metatextual bent via inserting a literal surrogate character for himself into the story.
It’s an alternate universe version of the mid-1980s where the Cold War has ended, the Soviets and the Americans are on the same team, and the threat of subversives somehow still remains. Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) has recently quit his job working at Berkeley, California record shop to head to L.A. with his wife (Vikings’ Katheryn Winnick) and get a job as a record producer. He’s compelled to do this because he hears voices and gets hallucinatory visions in his sleep coming from VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), an otherworldly entity that’s slowly telling him to take part in a conspiracy to overthrow the fear mongering current government.
The real meat of the story here comes across as being pretty silly at times, but it’s delivered with a kind of confidence that makes it easy to get behind. Considering the plot ultimately revolves around trying to create a subversive song to make the whole world take notice of their current situation (hey, it’s still better than Begin Again), there’s not much that can be done to make Nick’s plight gritty and realistic. The visions he receives in his sleep are rendered with the kind of purple tinted lighting that recalls Flash Gordon, and the effects would have been unconvincing in the time period when the film’s supposed to take place. Again, that’s a side effect of having no money, but that combined with the corniness of certain sequences keeps threatening to throw this material off the tracks every twenty minutes or so.
Some of that comes from a somewhat off kilter performance from Scarfe. Sometimes his delivery of lines seems a bit too much like someone reading a radio drama instead of playing a character stuck in a frightening, life changing situation. It’s passable work, but in the same way that a lead in an 80s slasher film can be deemed as being passable. Of course, when he has to sell material that includes diagnosing an anomaly in his young son’s scrotal sac and having to watch as his own dreams literally stop for an Alanis Morisette music video (who aside from that out of place moment has a pretty decent dramatic turn as a woman who comes to Nick looking for work), it’s easy to see where it’s hard to get a handle on what needs to be done.
A lot of that unease comes from a near word for word porting of Dick’s writing by Simon. When characters are forced to talk about heady political and metaphysical concepts while shooting hoops or a seductive temptress has to say “grass makes me super horny,” those kinds of things are hard not to snicker at.
And yet, the ambition is there. So too is the skill since Simon’s work as a director has a clear thought process. The plotting and pacing are never illogical and the actual story and subtext never loses footing. He has studied the text with an assured eye for what makes it so interesting in the first place. The only thing missing here is money and a final rewrite, and the former is something that probably couldn’t have been helped much without changing the story entirely.
It’s a compelling choice for someone to choose to adapt Albemuth. Written towards the end of Dick’s career, the tone here is decidedly valedictory. Pessimistic, self-deprecating, and bearing only slight hope for the future, it’s the antithesis of why people adapt Dick in the first place. It’s closer in tone to George Orwell’s bleakness than any of the works that would become blockbusters from Dick’s C.V. And yet, that’s a big part of what makes the film worth sticking with.
Nick’s best friend and the audience/PKD surrogate is a sci-fi writer named Phil, played by now recognizable character actor Shea Whigham in a wonderful performance. Whenever Whigham appears the film feels reenergized and exciting. As the character is written, Simon clearly shows a love for Dick as a person, and Whigham does the man justice with a gruff, but warm performance as a man who feels past his prime. Phil sees himself as a fraud. He’s generally unhappy with most of what he has written and what he has to do to stay successful. He’s also a thoughtful friend to Nick despite never quite believing anything about his mystical situation.
The best part of the film as a whole is the final third that focuses almost exclusively on Phil having to come to terms with his forever altered view on the world. Whigham and Simon deliver some emotionally effective work here, and it’s hard not to wish that this couldn’t have been the whole film. It does a finer job of showcasing the scientific, subversive, and slightly religious tone of Dick’s work better than the previous 90 minutes could.
So the film never feels like it takes place in an alternate version of the 1980s, the visuals are lacklustre, and the writing at some points will make more astute viewers cringe. At least there’s a follow through to Simon’s work here that more polished productions can’t be bothered to get a handle on. It’s certainly not a great film by any stretch, and I would hesitate to call it one of the best Dick adaptations in spite of the faith shown to the text. The best thing that I can say is that it’s a true original. No one else would have made this movie and they certainly wouldn’t have made it in this fashion. That’s not a slight against the film, but a genuine compliment. The work and dedication put in by Simon shows, and considering how hard it seems this film was to make in the first place, it’s quite a feat.