Very early on in the film Radio Free Albemuth, we’re straight-up shown an alien satellite in orbit shooting a zap-beam into the head of Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), the movie’s protagonist. This scene almost dares us to just accept what is going on, but when you’re making a Philip K. Dick movie, a disconnect between reality (even a science fictional one) and “normal stuff” is bound to happen. And instead of avoiding that inherent disconnect, this film embraces it. Because if you’re not willing to have a tonally jumbled movie, one in which the movie itself seems to almost parody the human experience, then you can’t adapt Dick.
Writing about Philip K. Dick movies is nearly impossible without writing about Dick’s larger-than-the-solar-system personality. A few years ago, I even tried to compile a report card chronicling which Dick-adapted movies were faithful AND which were good films. I’m not sure I can immediately put Radio Free Albemuth into those tidy, brutal scores, but I will say it definitely gets an A with an infinite amount of pluses after it for faithfulness to the source material. Not to say there aren’t a few changes here and there. Director and screenwriter John Alan Simon’s alterations from the novel version of Radio Free Albemuth are both subtle and fairly necessary. While in the book, the character of Rachel (Katheryn Winnick) is a conniving, self-centered person, she’s rendered way more three-dimensional and likable in the film. It’s a small change, but Simon knows you can’t sell the possibility of the aliens in your movie without us also believing in the humans.
Serving as the framing mechanism for the whole story; the human this movie probably sells us the most is Philip K. Dick himself. For those unfamiliar with the novel the author appears meta-fictionally as a character in the story. Called “Phil” by his friends throughout the majority of the movie, this Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham) isn’t an accurate rendering of what the author was like exactly, but instead a more Midnight in Paris version of him. At a recent screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, I got a chance to hear John Alan Simon’s take on how he decided to present this meta version of “Philip K. Dick.”
“Because Radio Free Albemuth takes place in an alternate reality I didn’t feel it necessary to create ‘Philip K Dick’ as a realistic version of the author himself. I thought it was more interesting for the character to have his own quality as a kind of projected self image of the writer. When I look in the mirror in the morning to shave I see a combination Cary Grant and Michael Caine. So I wanted Shea Whigham’s characterization of this fictionalized version of Philip K Dick to have a kind of cool hipster feel harkening back to the beat generation, like the young Kerouac or Neal Cassidy—who influenced Phillip K Dick as a writer coming of-age in Berkeley during the ’50s.”
And truly, this conceit works. For now and all time, when you want to picture a Philip K. Dick, it will be impossible for you to get Shea Whigham’s performance out of your head. It isn’t some brilliant biopic send-up of Dick, but instead, a quiet, humble, and rock-of-a character, who, far from being the zany science fiction writer who is experiencing contact with an alien intelligence called VALIS, is instead the straight-man skeptic who initially has a hard time buying what’s going on with his friend Nick Brady. “Just because I write science fiction,” Phil quips in one scene, “Doesn’t mean I believe any of this stuff.”
In real life though, Dick probably did. Depending on how much you want to get into the literature on the subject, Dick grappled with various beliefs that he had, at one point, maybe, been contacted by an intelligence from beyond. This was documented in his person diary called the Exegesis, but more interestingly fictionalized in the posthumous novel Radio Free Albemuth—originally titled by Dick as Valis System A. When that book was rejected for publication, Dick wrote a new book, using similar themes, which was more famously published as Valis. But as filmmaker John Alan Simon is quick to point out, this doesn’t mean Radio Free Albemuth is an early draft of Valis, but rather more of a companion piece. For me, the relationship between the two works feels more akin to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast; just because both books take place in Paris in the ’20s doesn’t make one a different draft of the other.
So, what happens in Radio Free Albemuth? Well, a radio store clerk named Nick gets contacted by aliens, convinces his wife to move to LA, becomes successful, meets Alanis Morissette (she plays a character named Sylvia AND she sings!) where he’s informed about a distant solar system called Albemuth that has constantly been trying to help humanity rise up against oppression since forever. Alanis teams up with Nick and they hatch a big plan that involves releasing a song called “Let’s Party,” which will help send a subliminal message to the youth population to help rise up against an oppressive world leader.
Philip K. Dick sits by, drinks beer, and makes commentary about everything. If that doesn’t sound like at least a fun movie to you, then, honestly, I can’t help you. John Alan Simon is so unapologetic about the weirdness and strange combination of uncomfortable humor and deadly earnestness that reading Philip K. Dick elicits. Many films have tried to capture the surreal qualities of the novels and stories of this super-famous author, but none has done it with such heart and fun as Radio Free Albemuth. A film in development since 2004, with occasional “work in progress” screenings since 2010, this film comes across completely as the labor of love that it is.
If science fiction movies were like romantic comedies, everybody would be making them. But then again, they kind of do. On a superficial level, a vast majority of Hollywood tent-pole blockbusters contain science fiction elements, but that doesn’t mean science fiction is a cinematic safe bet. It also means you have to be a little bit brave to make a movie that’s not a safe bet on purpose. This weekend, Transformers 4 will open opposite this science fiction movie. And if Radio Free Albemuth is playing in your city, you should go see it. Not because you’ll necessarily like Radio Free Albemuth better than Transformers 4—I mean, I probably don’t know you, so I can’t know what you like—but I do know, even if you don’t like it, seeing this heartfelt film will be good for you.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.