"Radio Free Albemuth" is Philip K. Dick's vision of a dystopian 1985 (with Alanis Morissette)

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In John Alan Simon's adaptation of Dick's posthumous novel Radio Free Albemuth, a record store clerk receives hallucinatory missives from the alien satellite VALIS. The filmmakers are committed to the source material, but the film is uneven.

Let's start with the good. The strongest actor in Radio Free Albemuth is Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire), who portrays a fictionalized version of the author. Dick lives in San Francisco in an alternate reality 1985 where President Ferris Fremont is conducting a secret war against the terrorist cell Aramchek. Dick's America is an unpleasant place to live, what with civil liberties curtailed and the Friends of the American People (FAP) keeping tabs on would-be subversives. FAP targets Dick when his friend Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) becomes an unwitting herald of the alien satellite VALIS.

VALIS begins giving Nick strange missions; it instructs him to move his family to Los Angeles, take a job at a record company, and hire enigmatic singer-songwriter Sylvia (Alanis Morissette). Whigham plays Dick as gruff but good-natured, but most importantly he imbues Dick with a muted sense of incredulity. None of his costars are fazed by Nick's extraterrestrial prattling. VALIS begins to perform miracles, but there's not an iota of wonder.

When VALIS' demands become more cryptic and its civilization-shattering origins are revealed, everyone's weirdly okay with it. Part of the problem is stilted acting, which transforms big revelations into forced infodumps. The special effects don't help either. It's hard to fault an indie production for having low-budget CGI, but many of VALIS' dreamscapes look dated. More modest (or perhaps a total lack of) special effects would've helped RBA. It's more enticing to keep the audience guessing if Nick is a prophet (or a maniac) than to show us an alien satellite using so-so CGI tout de suite.


The VALIS sequences may not be memorable, but the film does a good job portraying a draconian California. The Los Angeles haze makes this alternate USA look like a prime slice of Hell, and Hanna Hall does a top-notch job playing Vivian, a supercilious FAP agent. Dick fans should check out Radio Free Albemuth, if just for the novelty of seeing the book onscreen. The film has no luster when Nick and Sylvia look to the stars, but it's good, claustrophobic science fiction when the underused Whigham is slumming it on Earth.


Radio Free Albemuth is making the rounds at select film festivals worldwide. You can read more about the film here.