Now, on this podcast we love a bit of Dick, ol’ Phil K being a favourite author in this neck of the woods, with some of our favourite films based on his work. We’ve already discussed Blade Runner and Total Recall, but it’s fair to say that these are both only very loosely based on the works that inspire them. We thought we’d take a look at two films rather more adherent to the source material, with Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of A Scanner Darkly and 2014’s Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon.
As usual for these types of episodes, spoilers abound, so consider yourself warned.
This adaptation sees Keanu Reeves take the role of Bob Arctor, a man with many faces. At least, when he’s wearing his anonymising Scramble Suit to report to his similarly anonymous superior officers in his role as an undercover cop. He’s currently investigating the sourcing and suppliers of a drug that his gripped this dystopian future, Substance D, or Death. While one assumes there’s some pleasure to be taken from D, we only ever seem to see the damage that it wreaks. For an example, let’s look at Rory Cochrane’s Charles Freck, who’s busy hallucinating immense quantities of aphids and obsessively cleaning himself off them, and from a lot of what’s said, he’s still one of the better off.
With, we’re told, something like 20% of the American populace wired to the eyeballs on the substance, the closest thing there is to help for these people is a chain of rehab centres run by the New Path, who try and clean these people up for a return to society, even if the left and right hemispheres of their brains are no longer talking to each other.
Arctor is currently working on Winona Ryder’s Donna, his sort-of-girlfriend and small time dealer, with the hope of working his way up the chain. His once pleasant home is now occupied not by his long-left wife and children, but Robert Downey Jr.’s paranoid, hyperactive, would-be scientist know all James Barris, and Woody Harrelson’s much more laid back Ernie Luckman, a seemingly nice guy who’s a lot closer to the “stoner washout” stereotype than perhaps is comfortable.
Things become more confusing for Arctor when, as a result of a tip-off from Barris, he is ordered to start paying particular attention to this suspicious “Bob Arctor” character. When the futurepolice say anonymous, they mean anonymous. So, he manoeuvres everyone out of the house to allow for a fancy surveillance setup to be installed, to better investigate himself.
There is, of course, any number of undercover investigators that wind up identifying more with the people they are investigating than their colleagues or superiors. Unfortunately for Arctor, the dissociative disorders that the substance D causes makes it rather difficult for Arctor to identify with anyone, particularly when he starts watching sequences in the recordings that he has no memory of.
And so it goes, with Arctor becoming more paranoid and less capable until his superiors decide he’s been getting a little too close to the addicts that he’s investigating in both personal and addiction terms, and is best off at a New Path facility. Which, turns out to have been Donna’s plan all along, suspecting that New Path are also the main producers of Substance D, but are protected by the government and have developed great techniques for rooting out undercover cops. Having a true addict be shipped off to the place seems to be the only way to get in, and they just hope there’s enough of Bob Arctor left at the end of New Path’s psychological breakdown to gather and return some evidence to them.
It is a desperate plan, and frankly not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny, particularly on repeat viewing. Thankfully, while the narrative is engaging, it’s not really the main peg that the film hangs its hat on.
In terms of fidelity, certainly up until Bob is shipped off to the New Path centre, Linklater adheres pretty close to the spirit of the source material. Not that it’s a literal translation, as we don’t have five hours to spend and at any length you’d still never get Dick’s wonderfully evocative descriptions of mental states and the like. From memory, it’s a little easygoing on some of the extreme New Path procedures that should perhaps be in the final act, but I suspect that Linklater was trying to get through that section as quickly at possible – on a number of levels it feels very much like this film ends just after it’s revealed that Donna is the superior officer Arctor has been reporting to, and the remainder of the narrative is perhaps given short shrift.
But such is the nature of successful adaptations, and I’d argue that this is the most successful of the Phillip K. Dick adaptations, at least in the sense of being adaptations. We’ve already described our affection for Blade Runner and Total Recall in prior podcasts, but there’s not, in truth, much of the original work in those films. This captures more of Dick’s excellent original novel, and is all the richer for it.
One aspect of the film that could see it written off as a gimmick was rotoscoping the actors to make this an animated film. I hope that bringing this up so late in the review belays that somewhat, as I don’t think it’s all that integral to the strengths of the film. However, it has created a truly distinctive looking film, and enabled some scenes of hallucinations and the Scramble Suit effect that I doubt the sub-ten million dollar budget could hope to achieve as live action. It looks terrific, and just as lovely today as it was ten years ago.
The performances are all top class, Reeves, someone who always takes more stick than deserved, gives a layered and convincing central performance and the supporting cast are all top notch – perhaps overshadowed by Downey Jr.’s hyperactivity which may, perhaps, be drawing from his own experience, not that I’m saying anything that could sued. Your honour.
As an introduction into Dick’s recurring themes of identity and his personal experiences with drugs, this really would be an excellent starting point and a good guide into whether or not you’ll appreciate his novels. There’s not a great deal more an adaptation can do, really. It’s an excellent film, and one of my favourites.
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.
So, a fifty percent hit-rate there, but that’s better than nothing. If you disagree with our assessment, why not hit us up on the carious channels below and speak your mind?
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