Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Review: The Man in the High Castle

Christians in the United States sometimes talk in rather exaggerated terms of being “persecuted.”  What would life be like for us if we actually lived in a totalitarian state without basic civil rights?  The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history series on Amazon, gives us some ideas.

The series is loosely based Philip K. Dick's classic award-winning novel.  In adapting the story for television, creator Frank Spotniz has taken great liberties with the original source.  Spotniz, who was associated with The X Files, freely exercises some of the political and social satire of the former series in showing a United States of America in 1960 where the Allies lost World War Two.  

In this version of history, the United States has been divided into three parts: the Japanese Pacific States in the west, the Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Rocky Mountain States (or the Neutral Zone) in the middle.  Hitler is still alive, but he appears to be in failing health and ripe for assassination. In showing us a history that never existed, Spotniz mixes the familiar and the unexpected with styles, entertainment, and social mores displayed in disconcerting ways.

The plot is driven by a set of films that depict an alternate reality (or realities).  These appear to be historical newsreels but they depict things that did not happen in the timeline where our characters live.  For example, one shows the Allies winning the war and crushing the Axis powers. Another shows San Francisco being leveled by an atomic bomb and American prisoners, including one of the key characters, being killed by another key character.  Are these films faked or do they show another possible history or histories?  The emphasis is less on how this is possible than on what does it means for those in subjugation.  The films seem to represent the hope for a better life than the one our characters live.

Both the representatives of the Reich and an American resistance movement want the films and will go to great lengths to get them.  The Nazis see them as subversive.  The goal of the resistance seems to be to get them to the mysterious “man in the high castle,” but why he wants them is unclear.

This is a rather slow paced and intricate presentation but there is depth to the understated performances.  This gives special resonance when there is a truly emotional and terrifying scene.  The characters are so deep that we cannot assume too much about any of them, thus surprising us at times.  We are never sure of their motivations.

The science fiction element is minimal, surfacing primarily in the final episode of season one.  There is more of an emphasis on the spiritual and metaphysical implications of the situations on the lives of the principal players.  What is reality and how does faith help us to process it?

The key question of the series seems to be, “What are you willing to give your life for?”  Some of the players seem willing to give their lives to obtain and protect these films. Others are willing to sacrifice for family and loved ones.  Even the Axis conquerors struggle with the question in their own way.

We Christians talk a great deal about what is important to us, but we rarely find ourselves in a situation where we have to take a stand and, even when we do so, little is at risk. What is important enough for you to die for?  The Man in the High Castle challenges us to answer that question.

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