Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—Radio Free Albemuth

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist, but can still be important in some aspect.

With CONvergence and its theme of dystopian visions coming up in July, I’m delving into the film adaptations of author Philip K. Dick’s stories. I intend to avoid comparisons to his novels/short stories and focus specifically on the films themselves.

In watching the eleven adaptations of his work, some themes rise to the top: for instance, he’s obsessed with Fate and the Soul. In fact, all the films can be sorted according to these two themes, though some have both. The Fate films largely focus on time paradoxes: if someone has knowledge of the future, does that change the future? The Soul films revolve around the nature of humanity: does a cyborg, for example, have the ability to feel, care, and grow? Who or what is truly “human”?

First up on my list:

Radio Free Albemuth (2010) – John Alan Simon (dir)

Movie poster for Radio Free Albemuth
The history of the story on which this film is based is important, as it was adapted from a posthumously published novel of the same name. Dick shelved it because it needed rewriting – then went on to re-use much of its dialog in his planned-but-never-finished VALIS Trilogy. A film based on an incomplete and ill-revised novel … has issues from the get-go.

The story takes place in an alternate-history 1985, where a fascist president (played by an underutilized Scott Wilson) is slowly eroding our freedoms. Record-store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) of Berkeley begins having visions which tell him to move his wife Rachel (Katheryn Winnick) and baby to Los Angeles and to become a record executive. In LA he is constantly visited by his friend, writer Philip K. Dick (a game Shea Whigham), during which they discuss Nick’s plan to overthrow the fascist government. Nick also befriends Sylvia Sadassa (Alanis Morissette – yes, that Alanis), who he discovers shares his visions.

A picture of the lead characters.

Alanis Morisette and Jonathan Scarfe

First-time director John Alan Simon also wrote the screenplay; it’s clear he had an uphill climb adapting the unfinished source material, and the film obviously suffers from its flaws. The resulting script is very stilted, and I imagine only those familiar with the the novel’s history will have any appreciation for what he’s trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, the script’s problems are compounded by the actors’ (lack of) delivery, a tendency towards religio-babble, and a narrative that on any close inspection frays in coherence. While technobabble in various Star Trek series frequently serves the plot and story in some way, the religio-babble here raises ideas that are never actually explored. That’s unfortunate: even with the fictional dystopian setting, this is one of Dick’s most autobiographical tales. It includes many of his thoughts on religion and his general outlook on spirituality, and I wish Simon would have done a better job displaying Dick’s ideas.

Sadly, the plot goes nowhere fast in the little moments just as much as it does with its big questions. Near the beginning of the film, Rachel confides to Phil that she wants to get out of her relationship with Nick because of his visions, but she can’t because she’s just found out she’s pregnant. Big deal? Yes – never dealt with again. Her next big scene is towards the middle of the film, when she’s incredibly jealous of Nick’s friendship with Sylvia. She comes across like a cuckolded woman, but there is no build-up to it. Again, the acting and script do no-one favors.

This film aims at Dick’s theme of Fate: if we’re told what to do by a Higher Power, how does that affect us, and what do we do about it? But it’s all matter-of-fact to Nick: he subscribes wholly and without question to the visions. He has no visible conflict about his moral or ethical purpose. For a better version of the same character, see Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Roy’s visions clearly affect him and he’s torn between his inner and outer demands. By contrast, Nick is just along for the ride, a vision vehicle. There’s no reason for the visions to have chosen Nick, and he demonstrates no independence from them; he’s just a meat sack with a mouth.

There were two cinematographers listed for the film, but neither distinguishes themselves. I don’t know who shot what, and I don’t care. There’s no pulse to any of the scenes, no interesting movements to draw the eye. Even the camera feels like it’s bored watching this.

Having thoroughly damned the film outright, I’ll now add some faint praise to my damning. The special effects aren’t bad for an independent film, but they don’t really help the plot and in fact further confuse it at times.

It’s no surprise to me that this film debuted in 2010, but didn’t become widely available until 2014: who would want to take credit for it on their resumé? If you want to see what some of these actors can do with better material, watch Scott Wilson on The Walking Dead, Shea Whigham in Boardwalk Empire or Marvel’s Agent Carter, and Alanis in Dogma.

Shea Whigham

Shea Wigham

If you want to explore the spiritual side of Philip K. Dick despite this disaster, I suggest reading the VALIS trilogy, or watching some of the other films on the list. Both the VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth novels have some surprisingly autobiographical content set in a sci-fi context that I find very interesting, but I can’t recommend this film in any way.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.


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