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Sci-fi master turns into film character

Watch the trailer for "Radio Free Albemuth," a film based on the Philip K. Dick book.

The latest movie based on Philip K. Dick's offbeat science-fiction stories features one especially offbeat character ... named Philip K. Dick.

"Radio Free Albemuth," an indie film that is getting a sneak-preview screening tonight at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, incorporates some of the wilder parts of Dick's biography — including his belief that he was getting information from a superintelligent, extraterrestrial entity called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

"Dick was very skeptical of these experiences," John Alan Simon, the screenwriter, director and producer for "Radio Free Albemuth," told me this week. "Some people think he was crazy. But if he was, he was a very lucid, skeptical kind of crazy."


Radio Free Albemuth

"Radio Free Albemuth" writer/director/producer John Alan Simon (right) checks signals with first assistant director Gabe Reiter.

Simon will participate in a Q&A at the Seattle screening, which kicks off a weekend celebration for new inductees in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Dick, who passed away in 1982, is already in that Hall of Fame — in part because his works have been such a fertile ground for sci-fi film adaptations such as "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "Total Recall," " A Scanner Darkly" and "The Adjustment Bureau."

Unlike those tales, "Radio Free Albemuth" is set in an alternate-reality past rather than the future: a past in which a Nixon-like president burns the Watergate tapes and creates a conspiracy theory aimed at keeping him in office. Meanwhile, VALIS transmits messages down to a resistance movement. Philip K. Dick (played by Shea Whigham in the movie) is among those who are drawn into the resistance, along with the story's protagonist (Nicholas Brady, played by Jonathan Scarfe) and a singer whose songs are encoded with subliminal messages.

Radio Free Albemuth

In "Radio Free Albemuth," Philip K. Dick is played by Shea Whigham.

The singer's role is filled by Alanis Morissette, the Canadian-American singer/actress who just happened to play God in the 1999 film "Dogma." Whigham is best-known for his role in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," while Scarfe has appeared in a number of TV series including "E.R." and "CSI: Miami." Most of the actors have had meaty roles in films and on TV, but Simon said "Radio Free Albemuth" is more about Dick's vision rather than about big-name movie stars.

"The movie asks a lot of very, very interesting questions about 'What is religion,' and 'What is God,' and 'What do you do if God begins sending messages to you?'" he told me. "What if God were an alien, and what if all the great religious movements of all time were inspired by the same over-intelligence in the universe? I found that a very intriguing notion. ... The movie is skeptical of answers, the same way Philip K. Dick was skeptical of religion."

Another theme in the film is sparked by the conflict between the government and the resistance. "It's the message of '1984,' the message of Huxley's 'Brave New World,' which is the importance of the individual over the supremacy of the state," Simon said. "That's a timeless message."

But the director also emphasized that the film wasn't just a philosophical treatise. "It is, at the end of the day, an exciting science-fiction thriller. ... not that dissimilar from 'The Da Vinci Code,'" Simon said.

"Radio Free Albemuth" has been making its way through the film-festival circuit, and so far it's gotten awards as well as accolades for staying true to the spirit of Dick's work, even if that means the movie gets a little talky at times.

Radio Free Albemuth

Canadian-American singer Alanis Morissette plays a subversive singer in "Radio Free Albemuth."

"While watching 'Radio Free Albemuth' has made me wonder whether stage or radio may be a better platform for a Dick adaptation, I came away from the film with that unique Dickian sense of unease, insignificance and wonder, and it's good to see his work reproduced so faithfully on the big screen, flawed or not," Quiet Earth's Ben Austwick wrote.

Simon said he hopes "Radio Free Albemuth" will build on the same sort of grass-roots interest that turned "What the Bleep Do We Know" into such a phenomenon seven years ago. The movie seems certain to win over the sci-fi master's hard-core fans, who call themselves "Dick-heads." But will the wider public dial in to "Radio Free Albemuth" as well? Stay tuned. ...


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