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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 07.10.14] scifi

Editor's Note: Also be sure to check out Ben's review of the movie from Sci-Fi London

Adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories are commonplace but they rarely manage to be successful, often taking great ideas and sucking out what makes them great leaving an oft glossy but empty shell. John Alan Simon's debut Radio Free Albemuth takes a different approach. The independently produced feature written and directed by Simon, is more prudent in production but keeps most of Dick's ideas in tact and the resulting feature emerges a little better because of it.

The story unfolds in a fascist state where Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), a radio store clerk, begins experiencing strange visions from an entity he calls VALIS. He shares the contents of the vision with his best friend Phil (Shea Whigham), an aspiring science fiction writer who, surprisingly, doesn't think his friend is crazy. Even when Nick uproots his family to LA because of a vision, Phil is right there for support. The move turns out for the best and Nick soon lands a job at a record company where he rises through the ranks quickly. He still gets visits from VALIS and shares those with his wife Rachel (Katheryn Winnick) who thinks he's crazy but avoids talking about them because the "visions" seem to reassure and bring Nick success.

This only scrapes the surface of Radio Free Albemuth which gets really interesting when Nick's visions show him a secret organization which is fighting the oppressive government and later tell him the president is a secret communist who needs to be overturned. Soon Nick finds himself at the center of a government investigation led by a zealous investigator named Vivian (Hanna Hall) who will do almost anything to uncover what she already suspects: that Nick has been infected by an alien force.

The layers in Radio Free Albemuth run so deep you could write pages and pages of plot and never really get to the center of what it's about and truth is, after one viewing I'm not sure I can discern what it's about. There are themes of government oppression and control, abuse of power and mistrust of leadership and even explorations of spirituality and religion. It's all in here but it never feels crammed in or confusing.

Though the effects are cheesy and in some cases laughably bad, they feel kind of appropriate to the story which mostly reads like a cheesy 70's scifi that is loaded with great ideas. Thankfully the effects don't matter much because Radio Free Albemuth rises above any visual shortcomings with great performances from Scarfe and Whigham who are clearly invested in their roles. For the most part, the lead performances are good, including Alanis Morissette who turns up in a pivotal role in the movie's second half. She's a bit awkward to begin with but she eases into the role of Sylvia nicely.

The one major problem with Simon's adaptation is that on occasion the dialog feels overly written and un-natural and though I'm not familiar with this particular work of Dick's, I assume that in the cases where it feels stilted, it was likely lifted directly from the source material.

It may well wear the trappings of a shoestring produced feature but Radio Free Albemuth manages to keep most if not all of Dick's themes in place while being an entertaining watch.

Radio Free Albemuth is now available on VOD and for our Toronto readers, the movie opens Friday, July 11 at The Royal.

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