Most Philip K. Dick stories feature loners who get themselves into conspiracy situations seemingly, at first, for no reason. Such was my experience with the new Jane Austen-inspired/Keri Russell literary rom-com, Austenland, which purports to feature a plucky young woman immersing herself in a faux Jane Austen-style summer camp.
Except she, and the audience, are really inside some kind of Battlestar Galactica/Philip K. Dick pastiche.
It’s true I saw Austenland by myself at 5 PM last Tuesday and was the only male in the theatre. I admit this freely. Did the film cure my end-of-summer-blues with its throw-caution-to-the-wind-believe-in-love sugary antics? It did not. And not because the film was a cynically contrived, poorly executed slog, but instead because it instilled in me a profound paranoia and made me start to question what was real and what was fiction, not just in the film, but in my own life.
How did I find myself here? Was I real? Is this the still the 1990s? Is Felicity still around and is she dreaming of Keri Russell, and if so, am I just a dream Felicity and Keri Russell are both having?
Austenland reveals its ties to Philip K. Dick very subtly at first by not making it entirely clear what time period this story takes place in, or even if the events we are witnessing take place in our own dimension. We see the main character—Keri Russell—as a teenager, and then as a grown-up. She looks exactly the same in all these scenes, except for one in which she wears braces. This is designed to break down our sense of reality, probably because the filmmakers are really lizard people trying to subvert our sense of time and history to more easily conquer this dimension. Did I mention the people all around me in the theatre were laughing?
Further sullying the assignation of a clear time period is a scene in which Keri Russell goes to something called a “travel agent,” which is definitely a person and not a website, to book her flight/trip package to Austenland! You might say this film is set in the 1990s (and thus functions as a kind of midquel to Felicity) but you’d be wrong, because Keri Russell has what looks like a smart phone later in the film.
Keri Russell, a character devoid of agency or motivation, convinces the viewer to believe in her simply because she is a simulacrum of the entity we know as “Keri Russell,” meaning any actions she takes are explicable through her doing her “Keri Russell thing.” Of the many mind-altering techniques the lizards/robots/aliens/mind-control cops are employing in this film; positing Keri Russell’s Keri Russellness into our minds is integral to their plans. This character sets out on a trip to “Austenland,” which we’re told is a kind of immersive experience which puts the visitor inside their very own Jane Austen-style story. Jane Seymour, who runs this place, tells us and Keri Russell that this faux-real life Austen novel will even include a romance with one of the “actors.” While we’re told this is Austenland, it’s really just Pride and Prejudice Land, since the more exciting decision-making characters like Emma Woodhouse are totally absent. (By Emma, I mean Emma, which in my universe was a novel written by Jane Austen and starring Alicia Silverstone.)
Once at Austenland, Keri Russell meets Flight of the Conchords Guy (Bret McKenzie), which any sane person knows is not possible, since Flight of the Conchords Guy cannot scientifically exist in the same universe as Keri Russell. Flight of the Conchords guy is the stable boy and supposed to be the only “real” person at Austenland, meaning in the rom-com formula Keri Russell must fall in love with him. A baby horse is born and everyone is reminded of City Slickers if it were imagined by Shelley Duvall’s Fairytale Theatre. Of course, the film also has a faux-Mr. Darcy (of Pride and Prejudice) who Keri Russell knows is only pretending to fall in love with her, because that’s his job at Austenland. When forced in the climax of the film to choose between this Austen-esque Darcy and Flight of the Conchords guy, Keri Russell of course chooses the latter. But wait! It’s all a ruse, because Faux Mr. Darcy actually does love Keri Russell, and Flight of the Conchords guy is the one who is an actor!
The charade continues all the way to the airport, where Keri Russell is charting her journey home to the colonies, when she’s faced with both men: one, still in a regency-era costume, and the other, dressed normally. (In our universe this means jeans and a t-shirt.) While a common moviegoer might see this as a zany illustration of Keri Russell’s fantasies merging with hard reality this is, in reality, an actual rupture in the space-time continuum. Flight of the Conchord Guy’s presence in a Keri Russell universe infused with fake Jane Austen stuff begins to destroy the universe and elements from other dimensions start leaking into the film. This is, of course, all by lizard-person design, which can only be detected when we apply the Philip K. Dick lens.
In countless Dick stories (like “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” or “Paycheck,” or the novel The Man Who Japed) characters are confronted with the notion that their entire biography is fiction, created or infused in them by some science fiction contraption. It is here we realize poor Keri Russell and all the players in this film have been similarly subverted, merely playthings of a greater, alien intelligence. Did I require additional evidence as this epiphany struck me? I did! But luckily it was staring me square in my (still human?) eyes.
The correctly lauded contemporary (2002) version of Battlestar Galactica draws heavily from Philip K. Dick, particularly from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Actor James Callis, who played Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica potrays an actor in Austenland. Baltar was not a Cylon (robot) but he did have sex with lots of them.
Compounding this conspiracy is the presence of Jane Seymour, who (as much as she’d like us to forget) starred in the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, in which she is brutally killed (while wearing beige) in front of an Egyptian pyramid by Cylons (robots.) So, two members from the (Dick-inspired) Battlestar Galactica universe also exist in Austenland? I think the space-time rupture is all but proven! After all, in the classic Galactica, the Cylons were said to originate from a race of lizard people who created them as robots.
Because Austenland is actually a weird Battlestar Galactica reunion of sorts, combined with meta-fictional concepts, I think the only thing missing was a certain 1990’s song triggering me to realize that yes, I too have been a robot this entire time.
And while no one reveals their alien faces in Austenland, the meta-fictional ending of the film includes the line “you’re my fantasy.” Proving, as I suspected, that this android/alien movie is dreaming of us. And likely with evil intents.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and really prefers Emma to all other Austen novels.