Monday, November 30, 2015

Television Review: The Man in the High Castle

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: It improves upon the source material to deliver an engaging, visually stunning, first-rate sci fi TV series

Amazon's series The Man in the High Castle is based on the Phillip K. Dick book of the same name about an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II and they now have a joint occupation of the United States.  As is typical of adaptations of Dick's works, plenty of liberties are taken with the source material, but the basic premise remains the same with this one.  The Nazis hold the eastern part of the country while Japan has the west coast and there is a neutral zone dividing the two along the Rocky Mountains.  Adolph Hitler is still the leader of the Nazis, though his health is failing and various interests in the German high command are positioning themselves to take over (in the book, Chancellor Martin Bormann had taken over for Hitler but then dies, thus creating the power struggle).  In the U.S., there is a resistance movement working against the occupying forces and they are collecting films that show another alternate timeline where the Axis did not win the war (in Dick's version it was a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy).

I listened to the audiobook version of The Man in the High Castle not too long ago and thought it was interesting but it came up short for me (you can read my review at this link).  Phillip K. Dick has definitely presented some grand ideas in his works, though often they become muddled by his frustrating tendency to digress and go off on tangents.  In Castle, he presented a fascinating world where the Allies lost WWII, but he seemed less interested in exploring that than delving into the philosophy and predictive nature of the Chinese divination text I Ching (which plays a central part in his book).  That's an interesting concept in its own right, but not what I was looking for in the book.

Fortunately, the Amazon television adaptation pushes most of that philosophical noodling to the background and focuses instead on the alternate timeline, the most interesting part of the story.  Set in 1962, we see the United States years after the war ended (1947 in this timeline) with the Nazis and Japanese fully entrenched as the ruling forces.  The story centers around the resistance movement with several lead characters getting pulled in reluctantly and also on a Nazi plot to draw the Japanese into a war that they cannot win (they have not advanced as far technologically as the Nazis).  These stories intertwine through the first season's ten episodes while we also get glimpses of life under the occupation and how the American's have adapted (or not) to their new rulers.

The series is definitely a slowburn as the stories take their time to unfold, and it does start to drag notably through the middle episodes,  But it picks up toward the end and resolves some of the storylines while also setting the show up for a second season (no word on that yet, but I do expect a renewal for this one).  It brings in a fair amount of the moral quandaries that you might expect from the show's premise, though it takes a more subtle approach with these than shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.  But The Man in the High Castle can be equally gut-wrenching and just as engaging, even if it takes its time getting there.

Ridley Scott is attached as executive producer so it delivers the expected visually stunning production.  It creates an "authentic" alternate American of the 1960's which is enhanced by the muted colors scheme used with a different palette employed for scenes in the East, West, and neutral zone.  And the stellar cast helps kick it up a notch as each of the actors brings their A-game.  Particularly notable is Rufus Sewall as an American who is now part of the Nazi high command and has fully assimilated himself and his family in the new order.  Alexa Davalos is the central character of the series and gives us a strong female lead who can hold her own in a world that is still very much male-dominated.  And character player D.J. Qualls (a particular favorite of mine) plays against type and shows his range as an actor.  Much like what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner (and a strong nod to Showrunner/Writer/Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz as well), this series improves upon its source material and turns it into a superior visual production and an important science fiction entry.  I found myself hypnotized from the creepy, haunting opening titles through all the multiple stories that unfold and highly recommended this as an important science fiction series.  The full, ten-episode first season is available for streaming now (included with Amazon Prime) at this link.

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