Philip K. Dick’s ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ Finally Reaches the Silver Screen

Like the book that inspired it, Radio Free Albemuth works as a vindicating love letter to spiritual seekers who feel that humanity is capable of more than the Orwellian rat race.

A paranoid incompetent has schemed his way into the White House and convulsed America in a vicious war against imaginary internal enemies. A struggling science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick is trying to keep from becoming one of that war’s casualties. And Dick’s best friend, a record executive named Nicholas Brady, is receiving transmissions from an extraterrestrial entity that may also happen to be God — an entity that apparently wants him to overthrow the President…”

— Promo copy on the back cover of the First Vintage Books edition of Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth (1998)

Written in 1976, Philip K. Dick‘s Radio Free Albemuth novel brilliantly recombines many of the themes that had informed the visionary sci-fi author’s career. This includes the stories that brought the world film classics like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. But aside from the concept of being telepathically contacted by a mystical ET entity, the story deals with concerns about the perilous direction of society in modern times, rather than the futuristic dystopian worlds where most of Dick’s stories were set.

The story also features a plotline about popular rock music’s potential to affect change in society, a compelling theme for fans of the socio-cultural music revolution of the ’60s that Dick was immersed in by living in his hometown of Berkeley, California before he moved to Santa Ana in the ‘70s. Radio Free Albemuth’s semi-autobiographical nature makes it even more compelling, with significant elements of the story based on events from Dick’s own life. It’s the award-winning author’s most personal tale and one that continues to intrigue fans many years and re-readings later.

Dick believed he may have been contacted by an ET entity on February 3, 1974, an incident that apparently triggered a series of mystical and enlightening events. He would write at length in his journals for a massive project he called his “Exegesis”, in which he tried to understand the incident he referred to as “2/3/74” and its subsequent ramifications. With a story based around mind-bending mystical occurrences in his own life, Dick sort of fashioned a new genre of what could be considered “non-fiction science fiction” with Radio Free Albemuth. It’s no surprise that he won admiration and friendship from other mystically inclined authors like Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, for Radio Free Albemuth shares compelling common themes with works like Wilson’s The Cosmic Trigger and Leary’s Neuropolitique.

Fans have been eagerly awaiting the film version of Radio Free Albemuth ever since writer/director John Simon and his team began shooting an independent production in 2007. The film started showing on the festival circuit in 2011, but distribution issues haunted it until a Kickstarter funding project finally got the film into limited release here in 2014. It recently screened at the Writer’s Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, after which Simon spoke at length about the highs and lows of bringing the complex tale to the screen.

Simon said he had read the book 50 times and continues to get something new out of it each time. His passion for the material was readily apparent, making it clear that he was the man to helm the project (his first as a director.) Dick’s prophetic genius lends Radio Free Albemuth a certain timeless quality where subsequent re-readings can indeed offer new insights, even if certain elements might start to seem somewhat anachronistic. The fascist President Ferris Fremont character was based on Richard Nixon, but after the events of September 11, 2001 and the climate of fearmongering propaganda that ensued, Radio Free Albemuth suddenly seemed like a visionary window onto the George W. Bush regime.

As to why the production team had such a difficult time finding distribution for a film based on a Philip K. Dick story, Simon said that foreign distributors were shy on the lack of flying cars, explosions and special effects that have generally populated the Dick-based blockbusters.

“I just didn’t want to do that to this story,” Simon said, showing a faithfulness to the beloved material and dedicated fanbase. The story certainly has a more intellectual quality than most Hollywood fare, with extensive philosophical and soul-searching type of dialogue that Dick has long been known for. This, of course, is what arguably makes it Dick’s deepest work. Simon said he feels the book has some of Dick’s best ideas and most graceful writing, and he’s done a commendable job of bringing these qualities to the screen.

The tagline from the film’s poster, “A message of hope from the stars”, summarizes the story’s overriding theme perfectly. It reflects how the protagonists come to feel about VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), the ET entity that encourages them to attempt subversive action against an oppressive government regime. Fans of the novel may find the film faithful to a fault at times, as certain scenes and bits of dialogue can feel a bit dated or unrealistic. But, most importantly, Dick’s larger themes remain ever on point.

The concept of youthful agents from a quasi-governmental security agency invading homes and intimidating citizens who have committed no crime may seem farfetched to some. But it is actually not far off from the current reality of NSA surveillance and the Obama administration’s secretive terrorist watchlist system that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American citizen as a terrorist (see “The Secret Government Rulebook For Labeling You a Terrorist”).

But Simon also made a handful of changes that work very well. He sets the story in 1985 to help bridge the gap between the ‘70s and the present and puts the two main protagonists in their 30s, instead of their 50s, to give them a little more charisma. He also makes Nicholas Brady’s wife Rachel more of a sympathetic character than she was in the book, a change Simon said he chose to emphasize the theme of friendship that runs so strongly in the story between Nicholas and Phil. Dick basically split his own personality into the two main characters, with his more idealistic side portrayed by Jonathan Scarfe as Nicholas and his more skeptical yet still earnest side played by Shea Whigham as Dick himself. Whigham does an outstanding job of bringing Dick to life, while Scarfe delivers a solid portrayal of a man compelled to action he doesn’t quite understand by mystical forces he can’t deny.

Alanis Morissette is perfectly cast as aspiring revolutionary Sylvia, a key character in the film’s third act. Simon said he envisioned Sylvia as “a slacker Joan of Arc”, saw Morissette as exactly that in their first meeting and never considered anyone else. She only gets to perform one song in a dream sequence, and it’s a bit on the saccharine side, surprising since she’s certainly capable of delivering more mystical material. But she lights up the screen and her performance offers an interesting parallel to her charming cameo as God in Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma.

Fans of The Walking Dead will recognize Scott Wilson as President Ferris Fremont, although it can be challenging to view him in a sinister light when his tone is so close to his amiable Virgil character from the zombie apocalypse. But the terrifying nature of living under an Orwellian government and the drama of risking everything to try and stop it are captured in increasingly gripping fashion as the film winds toward its suspenseful conclusion.

The film isn’t perfect, and, unsurprisingly, it seems to be over the heads of some mainstream critics. It doesn’t provide quite as gripping an experience as reading the book, although few film adaptations do. But Simon has done an admirable job of maintaining the story’s mystical essence and soul-searching themes. The book struck a chord with fans across the world who have had their own mystical encounters, with Dick providing a deeply analytical view on such matters across the spectrum from skeptical self-analysis to cathartic spiritual liberation. Like the book, the film works as a vindicating love letter to spiritual seekers who feel that humanity is capable of more than the Orwellian rat race of the modern era.

Simon said the long and winding process of getting the film released had been “a journey through everything that’s wrong with independent film distribution”. In the end, it’s not hard to see why the big Hollywood distributors were shy on the film. The story is too esoteric and subversive to strike a profitable chord with the masses, especially since Simon refused to pump it up with gratuitous action scenes and effects. But those mystical and subversive qualities are the same reasons why Radio Free Albemuth is destined to become a midnight movie cult classic.