Indie Sci-Fi Review: RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH (2014)

Independent filmmaker John Alan Simon clearly loves the works of now-classic science fiction author Philip K. Dick (often referred to by fans with his initials, PKD). In addition to the subject of this review, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH, Simon wrote the screenplay adaptation of another PKD novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). The latter film is currently in development, according to IMDb. Simon both wrote and directed RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH, which premiered in U.S. theaters on June 27th of this year, after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The film is an honest attempt to remain true to PKD’s storyline while making it relevant to the early 21st Century at the same time. Nevertheless, it has flaws that prevent it from being a high quality science-fiction film.

As a project, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH must have been a labor of love for Simon. Production began in 2007, but the movie did not premiere at its first film festival, the Sedona International Film Festival, until 2010. Even then, it was classified as a work in progress. By the time of release to theaters and on DVD and VOD this year (N.B., this reviewer watched RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH on DVD via Netflix), the film had spent a budget estimated at $3.6 million, according to IMDb, which also reported that the limited U.S. run (on ten screens) grossed only $5,553. The film was distributed by Freestyle Releasing and Freestyle Digital Media. Production companies included Open Pictures, Radio Free, Broadstroke Entertainment, Discovery Productions, and Rhino Films. Elizabeth Karr, Stephen Nemeth, and Dale Rosenbloom produced the film along with Simon.

Phil (Shea Whigham) and Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) in RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH

Phil (Shea Whigham) and Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) in RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH — image source: We Are Movie Geeks

The story-line involves a Berkeley, California record store clerk, Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), who starts having lucid dreams while asleep and hallucinations while awake. He starts to believe that these unusual experiences are communications from a supernatural source. His wife, Rachel (Katheryn Winnick), worries that he has lost his sanity. However, Phil (Shea Whigham), a science-fiction writer and close friend of Nick, does not write off the experiences to mental illness, although he is constitutionally skeptical and finds his friend’s story outlandish at first. Using this character, PKD wrote himself into the story as its narrator, a device that Simon preserves in the film.

For the setting of his novel, Dick envisioned a future in which a right-wing dictator, President Fremont (Scott Wilson), takes power after the end of the LBJ administration. Nick, Rachel, and Phil live in a United States whose totalitarian government stays in power by promoting paranoia among its citizens. With the help of a Nazi Party-like populist organization, Friends of the American People (FAP), President Fremont spreads anti-communist propaganda about a subversive terrorist organization known as Aramchek. This goes on despite the fact that the U.S. won the Cold War and is no longer at odds with the Soviets. This alternative history is also used by Simon.

Following the commands of the supernatural force, which Nick calls VALIS, he moves to Los Angeles, where he becomes wealthy and powerful as a record-company executive. Rachel goes with him reluctantly, but soon accepts Nick’s success and the trappings that go with it. Phil eventually follows, first temporarily as Nick and Rachel’s house guest and later permanently as an L.A. writer.

Sylvia (Alanis Morissette) and Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) in RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH

Sylvia (Alanis Morissette) and Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) in RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH — image source: New York Post

When he meets and hires Sylvia (Alanis Morissette), Nick learns the true identity and purpose of VALIS, which is tied up with Aramchek, an organization that he and Phil had decided was fictitious, an invented bogeyman designed to divert Americans from the loss of their civil rights and liberties in the name of security. The course of action that VALIS prescribes to Nick and Sylvia puts them in direct conflict with Fremont and his entire security apparatus, including FAP.

This plot could have been adapted to the political and economic situation of the actual, post-9/11 United States, producing a dark and frightening vision of the future. Simon certainly attempted to do so. One thing that got in the way, however, is the casting of many of the principal players. Scarfe is completely unconvincing as Nick, a young man whose visions prompt him to change the course and purpose of his and his wife’s lives. Likewise, while Alanis Morissette sold well as a uniquely talented singer/songwriter, her chops as an actress are limited. Only Shea Whigham’s portrayal of Phil rings true. Unfortunately it is not enough to carry the picture.

Not all of the blame can be laid on the cast. The film has too much exposition in the first act. The viewer is given too much information and not enough action. There are also second act problems that cause the film to drag. The film does revive by the third act, which is compelling, but by this point many viewers might have given up and stopped watching.

Finally, Simon’s fidelity to PKD’s vision in the novel Radio Free Albemuth seems to have gotten in the way of his apparent goal to make the story relevant to the 21st Century. As a result, it comes off as somewhat hokey in a ’70s kind of way. For example, the special effects involving VALIS are not very sophisticated, which is unfortunate given the large portion of the budget that they undoubtedly ate up.

For many reasons, this film is one of those indies that I really wanted to like. Unfortunately, due to the problems just described, I cannot say that I did. Nevertheless, I am more than curious to see what Simon does with Flow My Tears. The material might play better on the screen. I would like to see an indie director, cast, and crew outdo such Hollywood PKD adaptations as “Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982), “Total Recall” (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), and “Minority Report” (Steven Spielberg, 2002). This, however, will be a significant challenge.