Set in a quasi-Fascist alternative U.S. of the 1980s, “Radio Free Albemuth” is an engrossing adaptation of the same-named novel by Philip K. Dick. Produced on a much more modest scale than previous Dick interpretations such as “Minority Report,” this well-performed paranoia piece about a music exec rebelling against the state after receiving messages from an alien intelligence should connect strongly with Dick’s fanbase and attract upscale auds seeking sci-fi with political and philosophical substance. John Alan Simon’s helming debut, which hasn’t yet secured Stateside distribution, could prosper in niche situations if correctly marketed. Hefty worldwide ancillary action is assured.
Posthumously published in 1985, the source material is among Dick’s most autobiographical works. Very faithful to the novel’s detailed plot and complex meditations on the interplay of earthly realities, spiritual beliefs and otherworldly powers determining the protag’s destiny, Simon’s screenplay is inevitably talky but consistently absorbing.
Setting is Berkeley, Calif., during the fourth term of President Fremont (Scott Wilson). A scaremonger who has withdrawn civil liberties and imposed Draconian internal security measures, Fremont claims the U.S. is under threat from “Aramchek,” a subversive organization attempting to install “a Godless dictatorship.”
The story revolves around Dick’s two alter egos: narrator and audience conduit Phil (Shea Whigham, “Boardwalk Empire”), a successful sci-fi author; and Phil’s best friend, Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), a record-store employee who is experiencing trippy dreams of his future self in another universe. (The character of Nick is the manifestation of identity-transforming visions Dick claimed to have experienced in 1974.)
Acting on messages received in a dream, Nick impulsively relocates to Los Angeles, with his understanding wife, Rachel (Katheryn Winnick), and is soon offered a top job with a major music label. Any lingering doubts Nick has about a higher intelligence guiding and protecting him are erased when he meets Sylvia Aramchek (pop diva Alanis Morissette), a singer in remission from cancer who has received transmissions similar to Nick. The upshot is Nick’s decision to produce a catchy pop song with subliminal lyrics that will inspire an oppressed population to rise up against Fremont.
With level-headed Phil gradually coming to understand the how and why of Nick’s radical metamorphosis, the pic operates successfully as a study of enlightenment and a straight-ahead conspiracy thriller. Although the discussions about the alien satellite communicating with Nick and Sylvia are a tad lumpy in spots, the narrative delivers satisfying intrigue and suspense, making the threat posed by Vivian Kaplan (Hanna Hall), a smarmy young agent working for “Friends of the American People,” a creepy state-sponsored organization, seem very real.
Gritty HD lensing and imaginative, old-fashioned-in-a-good-way effects showing the alternate world surrounding Nick and Sylvia. A terrific score by Canadian composer Ralph Grierson and British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock is the jewel in a first-class tech package.