One of Philip K. Dick’s (1928-1982) finest inspirations was VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), which he first laid out in Radio Free Albemuth. The novel was written in 1976, but not published until 1985. The new film Radio Free Albemuth (2014) is the eleventh book of Dick’s that has been brought to the screen. Unlike Blade Runner (1982), which strongly deviated from its source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Radio Free Albemuth is very faithful to the original. Director John Alan Simon adapted the book for the screen, and it is clear that he is a big fan of the author.
At the end of his life, Dick was struggling to get all of his ideas out onto the page, and many consider the VALIS trilogy to be his crowning achievement. This film reflects the central difficulty in bringing Dick’s novels to the screen. What made the author’s work so compelling was the interior life of characters, not so much the action. It is difficult to bring such big ideas to the screen without long monologues, and that was one of Simon's challenges.
Although Dick was classified as “science fiction,” Radio Free Albemuth is far from being a Star Trek film. In fact, it would be difficult to compare it even to Blade Runner, as there is very little outside action. On the plus side, it is highly commendable that Simon is so faithful to Dick’s written words. The torrent of spirituality, philosophy, fear of government repression, life, death, and the afterlife roll out of the main character’s mouths in ways that will make your head spin.
The story of Nicholas Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) is told by his best friend Phil (Shea Whigham). Phil is a not-so-subtle version of Dick, who describes himself as a science fiction writer who does most of his work with the help of amphetamines. Nick begins telling Phil about the vivid dreams he has been having, and much of what Nick tells Phil becomes fodder for his books.
VALIS slowly reveals itself to be an alien force for the good of mankind, and is often compared to Christ. The Cold War was still raging when Dick wrote this book, but his comment about repression is timeless: “What is the difference between a right-wing cop holding you down in America, or a left-wing cop holding you down in the USSR?”
Indeed, repression is repression, and this is one of the reasons Radio Free Albemuth works so well. VALIS shows Nick that both sides are playing the same game, and the losers are the status quo. Of course, the government is aware of VALIS, and is doing everything they can to stop it. There are “tuned-in” people around the country like Nick, who have some sort of “alien egg” in their brains, which allows them to hear what VALIS is saying. The government is actively tracking all of them down.
President Fremont (Scott Wilson) is not satisfied with just catching the subversives though. Using a cover story, he destroys the orbiting VALIS station with a missile, before going after Nick. In a nod to McCarthyism and the anti-communist fervor of the early '50s, there is a quasi-governmental loyalty group who call themselves Friends of the American People (FAP) who do much of the dirty work.
Phil is FAP’s main target, to try and find out what his friend Nick knows. They fight the good fight, and Nick meets a woman named Silvia Aramchek (Alanis Morissette) who is also in touch with VALIS. They dream up a method of getting their message out through the use of a pop song, but the government seems to know what they are doing, and have erased all copies. At least it appears that way until the very last scene.
Dick was not big on happy endings, and while the possibility exists that the message in the song will be absorbed by the teens who are listening to it while watching Phil at the labor camp, they may not even notice what is being said. His work always makes you think, and I believe this is the reason he remains so popular. I really commend Simon for the deep respect he shows here for the author. And the music is pretty great also, with a number of Robyn Hitchcock songs gracing the soundtrack.
Radio Free Albemuth is in theatres and on VOD now.