This review contains spoilers.
1.1 The Man In The High Castle (Pilot)
Adapting the worlds of Philip K. Dick to visual media is always a tricky proposition. For whatever reason, the person who has done Dick’s work the most justice is Ridley Scott in his production of Blade Runner. Even that was different from the source material, but it works brilliantly as a film thanks to Scott’s pruning and shaping, and that’s one of the reasons why Amazon Studios’ adaptation of The Man In The High Castle has been greeted with such interest from fans of all things weird. After all, when you have Ridley Scott and The X-Files guru Frank Spotnitz attached to the same project, it seems like only good things can result.
The Man In The High Castle has an instantly gripping premise. It’s a world in which the United States lost World War II and now finds itself divided up into three portions: The Pacific States of America, the Nazi-dominated United States of America, and a vast, rocky neutral zone separating the world’s two remaining powers from one another’s American holdings. It’s 1962, and the world is in a fragile peace held together by one dying dictator in Berlin. Ironically, when Hitler goes, so goes the peace between the two old allies, or so the rumour mill says.
One of the best things about the pilot episode is that it doesn’t belabour the point. Rather than cramming a lot of exposition into the viewer’s face to set the universe, it starts instead with characters, and fills the universe in as the plot progresses. The opening credits, which are phenomenal, do a great deal of the heavy lifting, and little incidental moments, like Hirohito Airport in San Francisco or the signs in German for the U-bahn in New York, serve as the glue to press all the elements together. It feels immediately like this is a world that people live in, and that it’s been this way for long enough that everyone, save a hardcore group of American freedom fighters, has accepted it.
Into this den of freedom fighters walks Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who talks his way into a mission transporting goods into the neutral zone for the resistance. As the Gestapo kick in the doors and open fire on the resistance, Joe drives across country with a gun, a paper envelope full of uppers, and a mission: get to Canon, Colorado. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, unassuming akido student Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) finds her mission thrust upon her by her dying half-sister. She’s given a reel of a movie, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and created by a man called The Man In The High Castle. The film reels are treason to possess and even more dangerous to transport, but she’s got a card and a location to head to: Canon, Colorado.
Of course, this is only the microplot; the macroplot is incredibly interesting. With Hitler dying, both sides of the line are beset by possibilities. The Japanese Empire’s representatives see only bad things during a consultation of the I Ching while Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) tries to work out a secret agreement with his German counterpart Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) to avoid the war. Meanwhile, in New York, dedicated fascist John Smith (Rufus Sewell) continues tirelessly in his effort to weed out and kill all traitors to the party.
That’s the gist of the characters thus far, and they cross paths in a very organic way. There are a lot of elements coming together in the pilot, but at no point does it become overwhelming. There’s a focus on Joe and on Juliana, as they’re our entry into this universe. Other characters serve mostly as colour, though Rufus Sewell’s Nazi will play a very big role in future episodes assuming the series gets picked up. The premise is great, and the script from Frank Spotnitz and Howard Brenton doesn’t get in its way while still including some of Dick’s more metaphysical and conspiratorial elements. It’s propulsive and twists expertly at the end, making it the sort of pilot that really makes audiences want to come back for more.
It also looks great. David Semel is a television lifer with a lot of interesting credits to his name (like American Horror Story, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Hannibal, and The Strain, among others). He also has previous pilot experience, which probably helps. The show looks great, and it makes great use of iconic imagery—the unusual helmets of the Japanese in the war linger on, the Nazi uniforms are iconic and frightening, and even the partisan brown shirts look appropriately menacing. The look of the period is right, but it’s just… wrong enough to show the damaging influence of fascism and imperialism on post-war America, without veering too far into foreign territory, while the Nazi embassy in the Pacific States looks like it was ripped out of 1934 Berlin, right down to the Chi-less chairs.
It looks great and it was interesting, but is it interesting enough for Amazon to pick it up? Given the star power behind it and the cost put into producing the pilot, I can’t imagine it won’t get picked up for a full season. More importantly, it feels like the sort of story that wants to be told, and I think Amazon might be the only place willing to tell it completely, without any advertisers or censors or commercial constraints. If they do pick it up, it can become something as compulsively watchable as conspiracy-minded The Americans with the supernatural trappings of Lost.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan loves some alternate history, especially if it involves World War II. This particular pilot is right in his wheelhouse, and definitely worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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