Based on The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by David Semel
Starring: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, Rufus Sewell
Imagine a reality where the Axis powers won World War II. Imagine an America occupied and divided between Japan and Germany. This is the setting for the Man in the High Castle, a tv series based upon the novel by master sci-fi writer, the late Phillip K Dick.
Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) is a young woman, and aikido expert, living in San Francisco with her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Frank is Jewish but has to keep this a secret because if the Japanese, who control the western part of America, find out they will hand him over to the Germans, who occupy the eastern part of the USA, and he’ll be executed.
One evening Juliana witnesses her half-sister, Trudy, being executed by the Japanese secret police but not before Trudy gives her a film reel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The film is supposedly the creation of the elusive and enigmatic figure, the Man in the High Castle, and purports to show an alternative reality where the Axis powers lost the Second World War. Trudy was on her way to Canon City in the Rocky Mountains, a neutral buffer zone between the Japanese west coast and German east, to deliver the film to a contact within the resistance. Juliana, determined to find out more about her half-sister’s activities and cause of death, goes in her stead.
Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is a New Yorker who seeks out the resistance in a bid to join their ranks but this is a ruse. He is in fact a double agent working for the Nazis. He manages to gain the confidence of a senior figure within the resistance and is tasked with driving a truck filled with supposedly stolen coffee makers to rendezvous with a resistance member in Canon City in the Rocky Mountains. During the trip he finds a copy of the Grasshopper Lies Heavy hidden on the truck and shortly after runs into Juliana in a café in Canon City.
This is only the pilot episode for what will, hopefully, be turned into a series but to judge it on the strength of a single episode, it has to be said, this was excellent! We know the story already has an impeccable lineage but the team responsible for adapting it to the screen have done a wonderful job. This alternative, 1960s, USA has been vividly sketched with a west coast that resembles a giant China Town while on the east coast everybody drives around in a Volkswagen. The atmosphere, even in the beautiful countryside, is suitably dark, claustrophobic and forbidding with its secret police and fascist regimes. In some cases it’s down-right chilling! The scene where it rains ash on Joe, while a policeman helps him to change a tyre on his truck on the side of a country road, and when Joe asks about the ash the copper casually tells him, “It’s from the furnaces where they burn the cripples and the terminally ill. You know, those that are a burden on society.” Brrr! Sent a shiver down my spine!
The pace, action and tension are suitably adrenaline pumping and the acting, so far, has been faultless. Kleintank is a convincing and wonderfully duplicitous double agent while Rufus Sewell is terrifying as SS Obergruppenführer John Smith, the American Nazi state’s ruthless witch hunter. Davalos does an admirable job portraying a young, relatively carefree, woman plunged into a dark world of espionage and intrigue. My only gripe is that Juliana is a little too chicken for someone who is a master of a martial art, especially something as profound as aikido. Okay, we don’t expect her to be Bruce Lee but, come on girl, show a little venom and steel! Your sensei would be proud!
If you’re looking for some enthralling sci-fi to help take your mind off the dark nights drawing in, then you should give the Man in the High Castle a go. On your screens 20 November.