Radio Free Albemuth
Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Opens June 27 at the Quad
If I told you there were a science fiction story in which god is an alien satellite that beams information to a cabal of alternate-America dissidents with instructions on how to take down a Nixonian tyrant whose initials are FFF—as in 666—who’s in fact a Manchurian Candidate-esque sleeper agent for the Communist party, and that they do so by writing books and releasing subversive records with subliminally revolutionary messages, well, you might ask me, where would I find such a batshit amazing story? And I would say: in the pages of Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, the paperbacker’s posthumously published semiautobiographical first attempt to deal with his peculiar late-70s religious awakening, which consumed the rest of his writing life: three novels known as the VALIS trilogy, starting with VALIS.
VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, appears in Radio Free, and Radio Free appears in VALIS: Dick condensed the former’s plot to create the latter’s movie-within-a-book. So it makes sense for fans to turn it into a film, and anyway, good luck adapting VALIS for the screen, with its blocks of bolded exegesis and its imaginary characters; this yarn is packed with crazy ideas and tight sci-fi plotting, pitting “alien-controlled subversives” against a fascist USA crushing dissent post-Soviet collapse. The radical politics and far-out Gnostic theology—like, the Roman Empire never ended; it’s holding us all prisoner, and the passage of time is an illusion—is transmitted via pink light to Nicholas Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), a record-store clerk turned corporate exec, who exhausts his wife (Katheryn Winnick) with his theories but intrigues his old pal, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham). Alanis Morisette turns up to sing a song in a VALIS vision, then as a secretary who introduces them to the underground resistance.
The problem is that the movie is notable only for its source material—not for what it does with it. Dickheads will find it a curiosity, while outsiders might have their interest piqued by the peculiar politico-religious dystopia. But everyone ought to be flummoxed by the chintzy special effects, reminiscent of computer graphics of the late 80s—think of a more primitive version of the Treehouse of Horror episode “Homer³”—and the garish visual “progress” they promised. (The film has been in the works for a decade, finished four years ago, but just now getting a proper theatrical release.)
They’re so awful you have to suspect it’s intentional, that it’s supposed to evoke the time period in which the film is set, though that doesn’t explain the anachronistically modern indie music that has 1980s record companies so excited. (Seriously, the Robyn Hitchcock-penned “Let’s Party,” the film’s “hit single” supposed to take down the president, might be the most morose, least fun party song ever.) Also anachronistic is the underlying ideology, Dick’s cosmic, godlike intelligence conspicuously born of post-Watergate paranoia and late Cold War outerspace anxiety. Refreshingly, though, Dick did something almost no baby boomer ever has: he put his faith in the next generation, maybe because he had to—because he recognized that his had failed.