Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

Poster for Radio Free Albemuth

This adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel has gotten positive word-of-mouth for its faithfulness to the book. It’s now streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it, although it may be available in other ways too. I read the novel last May, and so I can confirm that the film is pretty faithful to the book. It’s not as complex as the book is, but it maintains the mixture of “paranoid political dystopia, gnostic religion, and science fictional extrapolation.” One of the differences is that it doesn’t mimic the book’s structure, which is half from the point of view of Philip K. Dick (a character in his own novel) and half from the point of view of Dick’s friend, Nicholas Brady, who is subject to visions of a mysterious entity he calls the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Instead the movie is narrated entirely by Philip K. Dick, looking back on events after they’ve happened.

Radio Free Albemuth is the story of someone having religious visions that apparently really do give him secret knowledge, such as the fact is that his son has a potentially fatal birth defect that the doctors haven’t noticed. The source of these visions become the source of endless speculation by Brady and Dick. It’s also an alternate history about an America that has been taken over by an anti-communist dictator named Fremont who has established a police state. The film takes a while to get that dystopian reality across, which I thought was one of its weaknesses, but eventually it does a very good job of building a portrait of American fascism. Brady’s religious visions are also handled very well, with a nice use of computer graphics to illustrate the visions. The film is talky, but that’s part of its faithfulness to the equally talky book. It’s reminiscent that way of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which is another faithful adaptation of a talky PKD novel. I’d argue that Linklater is probably more successful at capturing the paranoid, schizophrenic quality to Dick’s vision.

Radio Free Albemuth felt slightly flat to me. Despite the nice use of computer animation, it’s not all that inventive visually. The drama isn’t particularly sharp, although it does build up to a strong climax. It feels a little bit like a TV show with limited sets and lots of talk, but it’s a good TV show with unusual ideas. The cast is all halfway familiar faces of people who play secondary characters in bigger films, with the added oddity of Alanis Morissette playing a character who is African-American in the book. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of Dick’s work or of eccentric gnostic science fiction.

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