Review by C.J. Bunce
The more I read Philip K. Dick’s novels, and I’ve read roughly half, the more I want to take a highlighter to paragraphs throughout his works that keep me coming back for more. Oddly enough, those tidbits I liked best from his Hugo Award-winning, 1963 novel The Man in the High Castle, didn’t make it into the Amazon Studios pilot released this month on their streaming service. Enough of his framework is there, however, to make science fiction fans, especially alternate history fans, want the new studio to pick up the series and show us what more they can do with this unique work.
The Man in the High Castle generally is considered Dick’s best work. The TV pilot and novel follow a small cast of characters living their average lives in a world where Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II. The superpowers have divided America, leaving a neutral zone of sorts in between, and this arrangement is the key political focus of the story. In the novel, life is more mundane and the vile realities more subtle. In the TV series the theme is more like Red Dawn–the studio must think modern audiences need that over-arching theme of American rebellion for the show to take hold. A key element missing from the pilot is the Japanese desire for American nostalgia. A key character in the novel, an antique salesman named Robert Childan, is absent from the TV version. It’s this character I was most fascinated with in the novel, so it was a strange watching the story progress without his contribution.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (The Librarians, Heroes, Alien Nation, License to Kill, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Big Trouble in Little China) plays Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese official who must warn Japan that Hitler is dying and will soon be replaced with one of his even less amiable lieutenants (Goebbels, etc.) who is likely to drop an Atomic bomb or two on Japan. Alexa Davalos (Angel, The Chronicles of Riddick, Defiance) plays Juliana Crain, a judo/Aikido instructor who receives a strange movie reel (in the novel, a book) titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy from her activist sister before she is gunned down by Japanese officials. The film shows a parallel reality where the United States did not lose the war. She encounters a double agent, Luke Kleintank (Bones) as Joe Blake, who also has a copy, as she ventures into the neutral zone to learn why her sister was murdered. Her boyfriend in the TV series (and ex-husband in the novel) is played by Rupert Evans (Hellboy, Fingersmith). He is taken prisoner at the end of the pilot, by association with Juliana and her sister’s apparent treasonous acts. Rufus Sewell (Zen, A Knight’s Tale, Eleventh Hour) makes an appearance as the ultimate villain–like many of his past roles–this time an unsympathetic Nazi military officer who tortures a rebel civilian without a glimmer of emotion.
Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, an adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is one of the pilot’s producers.
Although there is something not quite cohesive about the pilot–a typical thing for many pilots–it has plenty of potential. The visuals are startling, creepily and nicely so, from the 1950s automobiles to the military uniforms and civilian garb, a Fascist world’s Times Square, and a West Coast that looks like Chinatown everywhere you turn. Violent realities are spattered throughout the episode. The most disturbing is a light snowstorm while Luke Kleintank’s Joe Slade (Joe Cinnadella in the novel) is speaking with a local police officer. It’s not snow, but ashes from a local hospital burning the old and disabled.
So much of the original story happens in this first episode, it’s difficult to imagine much more than 2 or 3 more, like a typical BBC series, if the pilot catches on. The pilot for The Man in the High Castle is only available here via Amazon instant video or Amazon Prime subscription service.