Thursday, January 29, 2015

Culture Shock 01.29.15: Amazon confronts 'The Man in the High Castle'

The camera pulls back to reveal a theater marquee advertising "The Punch Party" starring Rock Hudson and June Allyson. It could be one of those romantic comedies in which Hudson so often appeared in the 1960s, often with Doris Day. But it isn't.

This movie is playing only in Nazi-occupied America.

Welcome to the world of "The Man in the High Castle," based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel of the same name, set in an America that lost World War II.

From that shot of the marquee on, "The Man in the High Castle" plays with our expectations. Nothing is entirely as it seems. There's the small irony, for instance, that one of the actors still able to work under America's Nazi regime is a closeted gay man. His movies are no threat.

"The Man in the High Castle" is part of's latest slate of pilots, and of the retailer-turned-studio's hour-long drama prospects, it's the one most deserving of a full-season order.

Few artists teeter between genius and madness in quite the literal way PKD did.

Dick's struggle with mental illness translated into stories about people who are never quite sure what is real or what is fantasy. A man could come to find out the world he thought he inhabited was all a dream. Or he could learn that what he thought were paranoid delusions about a vast conspiracy controlling everything were real.

A lowly resident of the science fiction ghetto during his lifetime, Dick has, since his death in 1982, been welcomed into America's literary pantheon. Through his novels and short stories, and through osmosis, Dick has become the SF writer with probably the greatest influence on popular culture. He certainly is one of the most frequently adapted, for better or worse. The movies "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report" all spring from his sometimes fevered imagination.

At the helm of "The Man in the High Castle" is executive producer Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files"), who also wrote the teleplay. The setting is roughly the same as in Dick's novel: an America where World War II dragged on past 1945 and Germany developed the atom bomb first, allowing the Nazis to vaporize Washington, D.C., and successfully invade the continental U.S. The story picks up in 1962, with the United States divided into two regions: Nazi-controlled territory east of the Rockies and Japanese-occupied territory along the West Coast, with an impoverished neutral zone in between.

The pilot opens in New York, where Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), trying to live up to the example of his war veteran father, joins up with a resistance cell. No sooner does he receive his mission — to transport a secret cargo to resistance contacts in the neutral zone — than the secret police strike. Joe is on the run from the outset.

On the West Coast, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) becomes involved with the resistance inadvertently when her sister, who is on the run from Japanese authorities, hands her a package containing movie reels labeled "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." The film, made by a mysterious figure known as the Man in the High Castle, depicts a world were the Allies defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan. It's a typical PKD conceit: Inside a work of alternate history, history itself becomes fiction.

So, film canisters in hand, Juliana takes up her sister's assignment and heads toward the neutral zone and an eventual meeting with Joe, which is where the pilot leaves off. But the episode is at its most  compelling when concerned with the deteriorating relations between Japan and Germany. The only thing worse than occupation is becoming the battleground for rival occupiers, which significantly raises the story's already high stakes.

Spotnitz squeezes a lot of potential plot threads into just an hour, while cinematographer James Hawkinson (NBC's "Hannibal," aka the best-looking show on television) gives everything an appropriately cinematic gloss, despite some obvious budget constraints.

"The Man in the High Castle" looks like it could be one the better PKD adaptations. The best of all worlds is where it makes Amazon's cut.

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