What You Need to Know About The Man In the High Castle Right Now
Entertainment Weekly, 9 July 2015
Philip K. Dick was a visionary, a trippy crank, and a thrilling, challenging writer who pushed the boundaries of science fiction. Hollywood has long looked to the author (who died in 1982) for inspiration, and the varied results have included some stellar entertainments. 'Minority Report'. 'Total Recall'. 'A Scanner Darkly'. 'Blade Runner'. To the list of adaptations that flatter Dick’s imagination and legacy, I submit the new Amazon Studios series 'The Man In The High Castle' for your consideration. The 10-episode first season, adapted from Dick’s 1962 novel, will drop this fall, but you can watch the first two episodes here at EW.com on Friday. I’ve seen both of them, and they’re impressive pieces of work. They characters, the world, and a central mystery that suggests a myriad of possibilities immediately captured my imagination.
The creative force behind the series is Frank Spotnitz, who was a longtime producer on 'The X-Files' and a key architect of the show’s sprawling mythology. His world-building skills and knack for nurturing intrigue over time are in full effect, but what I like best is how he has made a high-concept ‘what if?’ feel real and makes you care with emotionally resonant characters and scenarios. He’s taken to this book the way Ronald D. Moore has taken to 'Outlander' and turned into a dynamic storytelling universe… or universes, depending where the season takes us.
'The Man In The High Castle' belongs to at least one sub-genre of sci-fi, the alternate history tale, and maybe two, the alternate reality tale. It’s set in 1962, 15 years after the Axis powers won World War II. The country is divided into three sections. The Nazis control the Eastern half of the U.S., now known as the Greater Nazi Reich. It’s totalitarian, dystopian and bleak. The Japanese control everything west of the Rocky Mountains, now known as the Japanese Pacific States. It’s totalitarian, slightly less dystopian, a little less bleak. The sun actually shines there. People are allowed to learn martial arts and drink tea. In between these two swaths of empire is a neutral zone of no-man’s land. (If you’re living on Mountain Standard Time? That’s you.) The two sides need the buffer; there’s tension between the former allies.
Dick’s novel had a bunch of different and distinct storylines. Spotnitz has narrowed the field and unified the elements. The premiere sets two main plots into motion and culminates with their collision. In New York, a young man named Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) joins the underground resistance against the Nazis and undertakes a perilous assignment that sends him to Canon City, Colorado, a pivot point in the neutral zone. In San Francisco, a young woman named Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) sets out on a journey to the same place to solve a mystery pertaining to her half-sister, Trudy, who claims to have learned some potentially world-changing intelligence. “I found the reason,” she says. “For everything.”
Important to both storylines is the mystery of “The Man In The High Castle,” a subversive propagandist who specializes in producing artfully shot newsreels that depict a world in which the Allies won WWII. In other words: The world we know. These films are so potent in their vision that Adolph Hitler considers their very existence a threat to his power. Does “The Man In The High Castle” live so high in the sky that he can peek over the quantum divide and record events taking place in another reality? Or does he just have a really awesome special effects team? The answer is… yes, you should definitely be asking those questions.
The supporting characters and subplots complicate and deepen the intersecting Joe and Juliana arcs. In the East, John Smith, a German SS officer, played with great charisma by Rufus Sewell, is on Joe’s case. In the West, Frank Fink – Juliana’s boyfriend, an artist, and Jewish – must suffer the consequences of Trudy’s clandestine activities and Juliana’s sudden departure. Meanwhile, a German official traveling incognito as a Swede meets with a Japanese trade minister (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to deliver some intelligence that threatens the tenuous peace between the countries.
Every story is worth your interest. Great care has been taken to make the world look and vibe gritty-real. There are two spectacular establishing shots. One tracks Joe as he crosses Times Square circa 1962, electric with familiar corporate logos and Nazi imagery. Another tracks Juliana on a shopping trip through the streets of San Francisco. Both sequences were shot in Seattle (the movie palace in the premiere is The Paramount Theater), with director David Semel using digital effects to doctor the Emerald City’s downtown locations to create the vistas. Both dystopian cultures are remarkably detailed and lived-in. We get glimpses of what sixties-era TV is like in Nazi-America, everything from game shows to cop shows. In the premiere, Canon City – a small town dystopia and equally vivid – is played by Roslyn, Washington, where 'Northern Exposure' was shot. (The series proper is being filmed in Vancouver BC, though the writers room is based in London; Spotnitz, an American now living in Paris, commutes there weekly.) The whole things looks great. Not just “great for Amazon Studios.” Great, period. (Master cinema stylist Ridley Scott is an executive producer, though he manages from afar. His primary contribution: Helping to shape the show’s visual aesthetic. The touchstones: Edward Hopper paintings; Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic 1970 film about life during Italy’s Fascist period, The Conformist; and Scott’s own Dick adaptation, Blade Runner.)
In addition to the broad strokes of plot and some great twists, what sucked me into the show was the quality of the acting, the nuanced and detailed verisimilitude, and some surprising scenes that made me confident that a strong artistic vision drives the greater whole. The second episode adds home life dimension to Sewell’s John Smith, inspiring confidence that his character is more than just another intensely ruthless Nazi. There’s a moment in the first episode when Joe Blake encounters a patrol officer on the way to Canon City. It’s a scene that you’ve seen dozens of times before, and you know Blake is going to find some way to get out of the jam. But the show knows this, too, so it evolves into something else, a scene that reveals you an unsettling truth about everyday life in Nazi controlled America, and becomes even more interesting in retrospect, when you come to understand more about Joe. The more that 'The Man In High Castle' can give us casual richness such as this, the better it will be.
I’m hesitant at this point to make some big statement about What The Show Is All About from thematic, political or philosophical perspectives. What does it mean to be “free,” here and now, or anytime/anywhere? is a question clearly on the show’s mind. Right now, I accept and enjoy 'The Man In The High Castle' as a unique, distinctive above average drama that works one of my favorite kinds of stories, that being alt-history genre. What will be interesting to see is if Spotnitz and company push into geekier and wilder territory. This the 1960s; might future episodes/season give us a Space Race? (I understand Dick’s book includes… the colonization of Mars?) And if the story is dealing with alternate realities… well, how? Can characters access them? Change history? The show has much to explore before it ever goes here, and if and when it does, it should tread carefully. May the journey to come be as successful as the start, and even better.