The Adjustment Bureau: almost a first-rate SF movie

The Adjustment BureauThe Adjustment Bureau has the makings of a first-rate SF movie. It looks great, has the pacing of a thriller and a refreshing focus on story and characters over effects with good performances all around (starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp). On one hand it’s a love story about two people who find each other, and keep finding each other, against the odds and in the face of a mysterious and powerful force that seeks to keep them apart. On the other it’s a thought-provoking rumination about the nature of free will and self-determination versus conditioning and pre-determination.

Unlike the vast majority of so-called SF movies which are in fact action, horror or fantasy set typically in a futuristic setting, here is a movie that uses the tools available to the SF writer and film-maker (the manipulation of reality in this case) to undertake a thought-investigation and to entertain, which is the very essence of great SF. The Adjustment Bureau joins a small number of movies in the last decade, including The Fountain, Inception, The Road and Children of Men, which actually deserve to be labelled as SF.

It’s all the more disappointing then that in spite of its promise, The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t quite deliver.

George Nolfi’s screenplay (he also produced and directed the movie) is loosely based on the 1954 short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick and quite skilfully works in such familiar Dickian themes as reality being something other than it seems and consciousness being controlled by some external agency. [SPOILER ALERT] David Norris (Matt Damon) is a charismatic politician running for the senate on a seemingly unbeatable ticket when a moment’s misjudgement loses him the election. He rehearses his concession speech believing he is alone in a hotel bathroom but is overheard by Elise (Emily Blunt) who is hiding in one of the stalls. They experience an instant and remarkably powerful connection and kiss but are interrupted and Elise quickly departs. Inspired by Elise, David improvises an inspirational speech that leads many to believe he has what it takes to be the next president of the United States. He tries to locate Elise but is thwarted at every step until his  perseverance brings him face to face with the agents of the Adjustment Bureau, the ultimate Men in Grey. Known as angels by some, these grey suited bureaucrats implement the Chairman’s Plan, a blueprint for human destiny: reality and human consciousness are controlled, and adjusted as required, by the Bureau.

The Bureau has plans for David and those plans do not involve Elise and it will do everything in its considerable power to prevent the two from being together. David must let Elise go and accept a pre-determined path that the Chairman believes is for the good of humanity or risk everything by peeling back the layers of reality and asserting his freedom by pursuing his love for Elise. As with many of Philip K. Dick’s stories it is the protagonist’s fate to penetrate a “false” reality and perhaps to discover the truth that lies hidden on the other side.

Where Nolfi’s adaptation is a great success is that it leaves us asking questions: has David triumphed at the end? Is he acting freely? Or has the Chairman merely adjusted The Plan to accommodate David and Elise’s “love” and in fact they remain subject to its control?

And what about the love that drives David to rebel against The Plan? He appears to be a Romantic Rebel, but is he? When David and Elise meet in the hotel bathroom they experience a powerful and seemingly spontaneous connection, a connection of souls it seems, as if they’ve always known each other. And of course, they have. In several earlier versions of reality, The Plan in fact required that they love each other: they were not free to love each other. But The Plan has changed and in its current permutation David and Elise are not intended for each other. Is their love authentic – do they love each other freely – or is the love they feel now nothing more than an echo of the pre-determined love they once shared?

All of which is thought-provoking stuff and testament to Nolfi’s skill as a writer.

Unfortunately not all of the writing is as accomplished. I won’t belabour the point because The Adjustment Bureau is really not a bad movie, but it could have been something more, a first-rate SF movie if the same depth of thought that Nofli brought to the ideas discussed above was carried through to every other aspect of the narrative. Two examples will suffice.

The precise nature of the Adjustment Bureau is unclear. It’s staffed by beings who are equated with angels, and is overseen by the Chairman, who is implicitly God. But the Bureau may not be metaphysical at all; Nolfi has left it intentionally vague and there’s no reason why the Bureau might not plausibly be alien in origin. Whatever its nature is however, the Bureau’s purpose is clear enough: to guide humanity to what the Chairman believes is a better future. In the past, the Bureau was hands-off, but humanity botched things up so badly that the Bureau was forced to step in and take control. This has happened a number of times. The Roman Empire emerged under Bureau control and we achieved a certain level of development and were given free rein. Under our own steam, however, we ended up with the Dark Ages and the Bureau was forced to step in again, taking human development to new heights with the Renaissance. Believing we were better prepared to control our own fate, the Bureau gave us free rein once again and the result was two world wars and the threat of Nuclear destruction in the 1960s, forcing the Bureau to intervene once more. It’s been  controlling reality ever since.

Not only is this a remarkably unsophisticated analysis of history (the so-called Dark Ages are far from being as unenlightened as such a portrayal suggests), but this depiction of human development is entirely Euro-Centric. We’re told that the Dark Ages was a period in which humanity demonstrated that it was unworthy of the freedom it was allowed, but even if we accept the premise that the Dark Ages was unenlightened, this ignores what was happening in other parts of the world, in the Middle East for example, which was experiencing a cultural and scientific Renaissance of sorts, or even China, which was far from experiencing a “Dark Age”. Any suggestion that the current state of affairs under Bureau control is ideal is also quite ludicrous. We may not have nuked ourselves, but the world has entertained one theatre of war after another since the 1960s, and what we’ve done to the environment is approaching Armageddon of a different though equally destructive nature.

But for lazy thinking, you can’t go past the mechanism that Nolfi invents to allow the Bureau’s agents to travel undetected from one spot to another, and back and forth to the Bureau: they use doors with handles or knobs. It’s important that the doors have handles or knobs because these can be turned clockwise and anti-clockwise. One way allows the agents to return to the Bureau, the other to teleport from A to B. Turning a handle is not enough in itself however, neither is being an agent, even though they are clearly more than human (an agent hit by a car is unscathed).  Oh no, it’s also necessary to wear a hat, a fedora no less, which we presume is imbued with some magical, divine or advanced scientific power.

How on earth did the agents do their job in a world with few or no door handles (tent city for instance, or out in the field with a Roman Legion)? And what do they do when confronted by an automatic sliding door? In this one poorly conceived device, the potency of the agents and the grandeur of their ages-long purpose to guide humanity to a better future is diminished to a simple hat trick. And why? Because the plot requires that David somehow makes his way to the Bureau in order to confront the Chairman, and the best solution that Nolfi could come up with was for an agent to lend David a hat. Ho hum.

Some will no doubt consider this criticism to be little more than nit-picking, and perhaps to some degree it is. It is also an expression of frustration however that an otherwise intelligent and thought-provoking SF movie is not first-rate. After all, it’s not often that we have the opportunity to combine “first-rate” and “SF movie” in the one sentence…

Recommended but with some reservations.

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