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Ben Austwick [Film Festival 05.01.10] movie review scifi

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Year: 2009
Directors: John Alan Simon
Writers: John Alan Simon & Philip K. Dick
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 7 out of 10

[Editor's note: This film is unfinished and is a work-in-progress.]

Philip K Dick, surprisingly for such an unusual writer, is beloved by film makers who have found a rich seam of inspiration in his work without fully exploring its madness. Ridley Scott's Bladerunner is a much loved film but bears only a passing resemblance to the story it is based on, Minority Report and Total Recall take the slightest of inspiration from his writing, while the much more faithful A Scanner Darkly has plenty of detractors among Dick's fans. Nevertheless these fans look forward to any adaptation with baited breath, and the development of Radio Free Albemuth has been followed closely by the science fiction community. The good news is that this is the closest to Philip K Dick cinema has got yet, though a rather flat viewing experience perhaps explains why other directors have been reluctant to stay true to his work.


As you'd expect from a film determined to honour Dick properly, the plot is incredibly complicated. Nicholas Brady runs a Berkeley record shop, his life going nowhere until he receives a powerful night time vision urging him to move to Los Angeles, the success he finds in the city vindicating an increasing obsession with his dreams, which he believes are being beamed to him by an orbiting alien satellite called Valis. His partner Rachel is less convinced, and puts Nick through therapy to cure what she sees as a mental illness putting serious strain on their relationship. Their novelist friend – Philip K Dick himself, or at least a very Dickian version of him – is more sympathetic, and is gradually sucked in to the complex conspiracy Nick finds himself at the heart of.

This is played out to a background of fear as a fascist post-Cold War American state begins to take an interest in Phil's work as a writer and Nick's as a record producer, seeing a potential for subversion in their burgeoning artistic ideas. The thought that the state knows more about where they are headed than they do themselves is classic Dick paranoia, with visits from the sinister but wonderfully-named FAP (Friends of the American People) embodying the government's comprehensive surveillance. Hanna Hall is excellent as FAP agent Vivian Kaplan, manipulative, intense and frightening as she languidly and confidently pursues her subjects.

The intrusion of the US government is a welcome respite from a very dialogue-heavy story that revolves around conversations between its three main characters. This is of course how Dick wrote, his ideas far too complicated for more visual methods, and is a difficult hurdle for anyone trying to adapt his work to the big screen. Most adaptations haven't bothered to even try, while A Scanner Darkly employed the unusual rotoscoping visual technique to distract from a talky, action-free story. Apart from a few CGI sequences used to portray the Valis satellite and Nick's dreams, Radio Free Albemuth bravely goes straight Philip K Dick, and for a while it works.

The paranoia and fear ever-present in Dick's writing is well translated, as is his often overlooked humour, but there comes a point about halfway through the movie that the endless conversations become a bit tiresome, and this unfortunately coincides with the introduction of Alanis Morissette, who performs a song to Nick in a dream. This is as bad as it sounds. While integral to the plot, the sudden appearance of such a huge star in a low budget movie throws your suspension of disbelief and seems very out of place. Although you can tell acting isn't her first career Morissette actually isn't that bad in what turns out to be quite a large role, but her fame outshines her character, as do her amazing superstar teeth.

Radio Free Albemuth broadens from its conversational format towards the end as Nick's Valis visions drive him into subversion against the fascist government, in a story much more wonderful and complicated than I can hope to hint at here. Being one of Dick's later novels Christianity plays a big part in Radio Free Albemuth's conclusion, something that can feel a little new-agey if you don't pay attention to his unique and very self-aware ideas on religion as a force of rebellion and change, explained perfectly in the film's downbeat, paranoiac but ultimately hopeful final scenes. While watching Radio Free Albemuth has made me wonder whether stage or radio may be a better platform for a Dick adaptation, I came away from the film with that unique Dickian sense of unease, insignificance and wonder, and it's good to see his work reproduced so faithfully on the big screen, flawed or not.

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Jory (4 years ago) Reply

Seriously... can't wait to see it!

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Helen (4 years ago) Reply

likewise. dying...!

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Robert (3 years ago) Reply

Thanks, When will this be coming to AUSTRALIA ?

:)

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Chin Shih tang (3 years ago) Reply

When will it becoming? Period/Question mark.


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