This movie has been a long time coming. Filming started in 2007, it was shown at Sedona in 2010 and I have been waiting for it to be released, which didn’t happen until June 27, 2014, which I completely missed and just saw it on demand and watched it last night.
The movie is the first of the four novels of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS “trilogy” to be adapted to film. While it is often said that PKD’s books are great and the movies never live up to them (and perhaps that could be said of this movie as well), this is an important movie for several reasons.
Firstly, as mentioned, it is the first of PKD’s late books to be adapted to film (Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, as well as many others being adaptations of PKD’s earlier work). In February of 1974, Phil had his first vision/hallucination. He continued to have these experiences over the next months and his late career revolves around his attempt to understand these experiences. He picked up and set down many different explanations for his visions: God; extraterrestrials so advanced that they may as well be God; mental illness; Russian mind control experiments; beams of energy from a satellite; attempts by extraterrestrials to intervene to save the earth; an over-lap in parallel universes, as well as many other theories. In 2011 PKD’s 976 page Exegesis was published posthumously, containing many pages of his attempts to understand his experiences, as well as ideas for his late novels. It should be mentioned that Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 as a draft of what later was published in 1981 as VALIS. RFA was published posthumously in 1985. The two novels are similar only in the fact that they have a character named “Philip K. Dick” who is a science fiction writer. In both novels, PKD is a kind of foil, a straight man to either Horselover Fat (VALIS) or Nicholas Brady (RFA). Phil creates a split having one character experience the visions and the pink phosphene beam and receive communications from VALIS, while the “Philip K. Dick” character is initially skeptical, but gets pulled into the metaphysical action.
Secondly, the movie is important because of its political themes. In this universe, the United States is ruled by four-term President Fremont, who has declared war on the subversive organization Aramchek, which may or may not be a real organization. The characters in the movie are visited by FAP (Friends of the American People) who are young, Hitler Youth types with unquestioning patriotism. At one point, Nick and his wife, Rachel, have to complete tests after watching President Fremont’s speech. The question is: “If the American people have to give up liberties in order to fight Aramchek, are they gaining or losing ground?”
The movie features
- Alanis Morissette as Sylvia (who performs a song in one of Nick’s visions)
- Jonathan Scarfe as Nick
- Shea Whigham as Phil
- Katheryn Winnick as Rachel Brady
- Hanna R. Hall as Vivian Kaplan
Nick goes through a series of visions, which are very close to the visions that PKD described having in real life. At one point he becomes convinced that current reality is an overlay of Rome in AD 70, the time of persecution of Christians by Nero, “The Empire never ended,” which means that PKD/Nick believes that the US government at the time was equated with the Roman empire, and President Nixon can be seen as a kind of Roman emperor.
The movie stays close to PKD’s novel and has all of the many twists and turns of the plot, including visions of messages from an alternate reality from someone in the Portuguese States of America – while this entity can give advice, it cannot answer the question, “Who are you?” It presents PKD’s spiritual beliefs, which are a mixture of science fiction, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism. The movie has lines, like “No one ever truly dies” and “Our minds are being invaded by an alien life form, for our benefit.” (PKD particularly developed the concept of the Paraclete as an alien life form that cross-bonded with the early Christians who accepted it in. Phil often spoke of “Firebright,” which is what he called the light he sometimes communicated with.
The question of what exactly happened to the real PKD is an interesting one and he spent the last 8 years of his life trying to decipher this, considering all possibilities. I have started work on this question as well, looking at PKD’s experiences and personal journal (The Exegesis) and Carl Jung’s visionary experiences and personal journal (The Red Book). I have a draft for a book length project called Every Thought Leads to Infinity, which is a line from The Exegesis. The link leads to the abstract from my 2012 presentation of that name.
The movie seems to have all the right ingredients, other than a big special effects budget. The actors are believable in a PKD world. Knowing the back story as I do, it is difficult to say how well the movie stands on its own, apart from PKD’s stories and life. (The movie has just had limited release and has only made $8,493 at the box office). It could serve as an introduction to his later works and it also has a theme that is relevant in today’s society of a decade of war against terror. Before Nicholas Brady is executed without a trial, the last thing he says is, “I am an American citizen, I have rights!”
The tagline on the official movie website reads, “A message of hope from the stars.” In the end, PKD was always hopeful that the little guy, who takes the morally right stance against totalitarian political regimes and institutions of thought control, would come out on top. He also made arguments that are consistent with the Recovery Movement in mental health, a kind of human rights movement. I have summarized PKD’s views of humane mental health treatment in a presentation, “What Does it Mean to Be Human?” Philip K Dick believed that there was reason to hope, and in his worlds that hope often was supported by metaphysical/science fiction intervention from God or VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).
[A quick mention about the music featured in the film. Much of it is by Robyn Hitchcock, and has a few old songs by his earlier band, The Soft Boys. However, I can’t find the soundtrack and it looks like Hitchcock wrote a song, “To Be Human” for the film that is not available elsewhere at this point. Neither does Alanis Morissette’s song, “Professional Torturer” appear to be available.]
[John Alan Simon, the director and co-producer of Radio Free Albemuth, also obtained the rights to VALIS. In an interview in Bleeding Cool, Simon talks about VALIS, and also about his own long-standing interest in visionary experience, having studied and written on Yeats and Blake’s visionary experiences. I have always thought that VALIS would make a great movie. It has more of a sense of humor, as well as darkness, it has the movie within a movie theme, as well as it just seems like the best PKD novel containing a little bit of everything from his life’s work].