“Radio Free Albermuth,” debuting in theaters and on VOD Friday, is the latest adaptation of one of lauded science fiction author Philip K. Dick’s novels. With its unhurried pace and philosophical tone, it's closer to Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” than Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” on the spectrum of Dick adaptations. Even more than Linklater’s film, “RFA” is fascinated with Dick’s views on about culture, religion and paranoia. When it works, it’s shows off how timeless Dick’s culture insights are and at worst it plays like a ‘90s Scientology infomercial.
Set in alternate 1985 where a fascist President has turned America into surveillance state, record company executive Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) starts receiving transmissions from extraterrestrial consciousness called VALIS, which frightens his wife Rachel (Kathryn Winnick) and intrigues his friend, science fiction author Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham). Like David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” “Radio Free Albermuth” is an obvious literary adaptation. The film is extremely faithful to its source material, to the point where large sections of its 110 minute running time feel like a live reading of Dick’s novel.
The plot, while having the basic outline of a conspiracy thriller, is languorously paced and the characters have many long, context-less conversations that only exist for the audience to consider the ideas under discussion. It’s a risky approach and unfortunately writer/director John Alan Simon doesn’t have the chops to make the stylistic gambit work. If Simon had condensed Nick and Philip’s seemingly endless philosophical exchanges or pared back Nick endless wanderings through atrociously rendered CG landscapes, the film might have had some narrative thrust. Alternately, had those same scenes been interestingly framed, intriguingly scored, rhythmically edited or competently acted, “Radio Free Albermuth” would still have felt off but there would’ve been interesting enough to offset the staginess.
Another of the film’s serious problems is that Shea Whigham’s keenly observant and darkly funny Philip Dick isn’t the focus of the film. Whigham, so dazzling in “True Detective” as the magnetic Reverend Theriot, observes all the strange happening in his life like a warily war reporter. Whigham’s protrayal of Dick, gives the film a kind ragged verisimilitude. But whenever the focus inevitably shifts back to Scarfe’s Nick, the whole falls apart. Scarfe, who is high school play bad, never sells Nick’s transformation from sarcastic record store employee to celestial martyr. Since that tentative, painful embrace of the miraculous is the heart of “Radio Free Albermuth,” its cinematic incarnation is emotionally vacuous.
Ultimately, that lack of feeling is what dooms “Radio Free Albermuth.” There is just no way to emotionally invest in something so inert. Although many of Dick’s ideas about Gnosticism, alien life and the American condition make to the screen intact whereas a typical Hollywood movie would remove those ideas structure itself around the thriller elements, they were underserved by this film. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone who might be attracted to Dick’s ideas wouldn’t be better served by reading his books rather than watching this abysmal adaptation of his book.
Buy Cleveland area tickets to “Radio Free Albermuth” here.