More noise than signal

Radio Free Albemuth

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

There is a backstory to Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, or perhaps more accurately the state of Dick’s mind around the time of writing Radio Free Albemuth that deserves to be told, but not, perhaps in this forum. In short, he was dealing with some unusual experiences, and Dick has a fairly high bar for unusual so you know it’s serious, leading to him having something of a Gnostic revelation, and believing that then President Nixon was a reincarnation of the Emperor of Rome and should be impeached. I suppose he’s half right. At any rate Dick was in a weird place when he wrote, and quickly shelved Radio Free Albemuth, with it being published posthumously as a sort of companion piece cum alternate version of the VALIS trilogy.

I’ve not read any of these, so I can only go with what John Alan Simon’s film tell me. We’re introduced to a science fiction author named Phil (Shea Whigham), hammering out novels in Berkeley, California. His friend Nick (Jonathan Scarfe), works as a record store clerk, supporting his wife Rachel (Katheryn Winnick) and their baby boy. The story kicks off once Nick starts describing the strange visions he’s been having lately to Phil, which seems to be offering life advice to him. He describes these visions as coming from a source he names VALIS (Vast Alien Living Intelligence System), which turns out to be an orbiting alien satellite.

Following the advice imparted to him, Nick and family move off to Los Angeles, where he soon lands a job as a record executive and starts doing rather well for himself. Meanwhile back in Berkeley, Phil’s being visited by the local version of the brownshirts. We’re in another dystopia here, with President Ferris F. Fremont well into his fifth term of government, having used the vague threat of terrorist organisation called Aramchek to maintain a grip on power, remove civil liberties and generally talk in the way Trump would if he was in power, or Theresa May has now that she is.

Another of Nick’s visions reveals that a song will be an important way to subvert Fremont’s reign, and soon the singer from his dream has wandered into his company looking for secretarial work. Sylvia Aramchek (Alanis Morissette, of all people) soon becomes key in revealing certain details about President Fremont’s early life, uncovering details that they can use against him which points to him being a Communist agent, and she also reveals that there is more than one recipient of the satellite’s visions, and they’ve loosely organised a resistance to Fremont’s tyranny.

So, they concoct a plan to create a subversive song, full of subliminal hints that reveal the truth about Fremont’s deceptions, only to find the authorities one step ahead of them. Phil finds himself interred in a camp for subversives, his name used to release a series of novels each with gradually more pro-Fremont approved themes than the last, only to end with a slight hope that the song has gotten out to the youth via another cell.

Now, I’m a little conflicted in my opinion on this film. Only a very little, to be honest, but as someone who has not read the book, I was interested in seeing where this story was going. The narrative might not be the sturdiest of thing to build upon, but for a first time viewer it kept me interested enough to see it through to the end and not regret that decision.

However, Radio Free Albemuth is, I think it’s fair to say, a bad film on the objective level. While the performances aren’t too bad, perhaps a bit flat in places, the narrative and world building is significantly worse compared to A Scanner Darkly. Now, both films have their problems with believability, but Linklater pretty much managed to minimise them. Albemuth goes in quite the opposite direction, to a truly dreadful effect.

While the conspiracy theory at the heart of Albemuth is an order of magnitude dafter than that of A Scanner Darkly, it might not by itself be enough to write the film off. However, the treatment given to Nick’s visions from VALIS are so abysmal its almost as if it was deliberate. Each one is shown in a complete different and equally amateurish style, and this alone reduces the film surrounding it to laughing stock territory.

The strange thing is that the rest of the production design is perfectly competently handled – I’m not going to rave about it, but it’s perfectly acceptable – and then we get these abominations that would embarrass an Amiga demo disk from the late 80s. If they’d picked one style and ran with it, perhaps it would make a bit more stylist sense and be excusable – this is after all not a film with major studio backing or much of a budget – but these CG travesties are repellant and very much expose the modest budget, rather than hide it.

Also, and admittedly it’s hard to be sure having not read the source material, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of thematic content to this, no real exploration of the character’s personalities or drives. I’d assumed at the outset that these visions would be hallucinations, but when it’s revealed early on that yes, these are actual instructions from a satellite it became markedly less interesting to me, and doesn’t even spent a great deal of time discussing who these aliens are, which you think might be of some interest to Nick. Extra-terrestrial life. How blasé.

So, as something of a fan of Dick’s work, I did get some amount of joy from this – but only because I have not read the source material, which I am going to guess is better than this film, on the basis that it could hardly be worse. For anyone who has read the book, or for someone on the fence about Dick’s work, this is a film to run a mile for. It’s all too obvious why this, like the work it was based on was shelved, but perhaps that’s where this would be best left.