Polish Up the Gray, by Chase Beck
Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report; these are just a few of the films inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick. Writer (or should I say “adapter”)/director John Alan Simon took it upon himself to add to the aforementioned list of films with 2010’s Radio Free Albemuth. However, unlike the previously mentioned titles, Radio Free Albemuth is a much more contained and personal tale. In fact, it was Dick’s most personal story, one which he wrote himself into. Shea Whigham plays Dick, a Berkeley, California-based author whose friend Nick (Jonathan Scarfe) begins receiving life-guiding messages from an unknown source. Without giving too much away, Nick becomes convinced that he can change the course of the country, if not the world, by releasing a song containing subliminal messages. Unfortunately, battling against a totalitarian regime led by a U.S. president whose name has biblically-based apocalyptic references, is never easy nor straightforward.
Whigham’s portrayal of Dick is distinctly somnambulant. I can only assume he’s attempting an impression of the actual man. Unfortunately, it does not make for good cinema. For the most part, he comes of as an emotionless Wes Anderson character without any of the witty dialogue or ironic comedy. Perhaps with better writing it might have worked. As for the directing, Simon manages the tremendous feat of crafting a sprawling story on a small budget, weaving-in CG effects when necessary to aid the story. He does not shy away from the independent film feel of the picture. It is low-budget and it feels low-budget and that is fine. In only a few places did it really bother me. The film is supposed to take place in a dystopian 1985. I do not feel that this alternate future/past is ever very well established. The film is not terribly clear about what events led to this muddled reflection of our own dimension. As far as I can tell, this alternate timeline still has basketball, beer and vintage record stores, so how bad can it really be? Essentially, what I am trying to say is that Dick’s vision benefits from the kind of world-building showcased in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Alanis Morissette is in this film for some reason, playing a Californian with a noticeable Canadian accent. I mean sure, she sings and plays the guitar a little on screen, in a dream sequence, but professional actors have been pretending to do that on screen for centuries now. Music is an important part of the story and is handled competently in the film. I also would like to point-out the political commentary present in the film which would have been quite prescient in 1985 but feels about ten years too late today. Regardless, it perfectly captures Dick’s paranoia and political skepticism.
It is quite possible that this is the best film adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth, a story that does not really lend itself to compelling cinema, that we will ever see. If you are a fan of the work of Philip K. Dick you would do well to treat yourself to a viewing. If you are a Philip K. Dick completist, you could do a lot worse than to have this title on your shelf (I’m looking at you Magic Hats [aka The Adjustment Bureau] and 2012’s Total Recall).