Friday, October 31, 2014

The Adjustment Bureau Review

Mashing up genres can make for some interesting stories. Recently a couple of sci-fi romances movies have been released; The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and Upside Down (2012). I've been meaning to see both of them, and just now got around to seeing The Adjustment Bureau. It tosses around some neat ideas about determinism versus free will, but the actual romance part was pretty weak to say the least.
On the brink of winning a seat on the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris (Matt Damon) meets a beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) - a woman like none he's never known. But just as he realizes he's falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he's up against the agents of Fate itself - the men of The Adjustment Bureau - who will do anything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path or risk everything to defy fate and be with her.
We don't often see a politician character who isn't to some degree caught up in the deceit and corruption inherent in politics. David is a pretty down to earth guy for being a politician. Maybe it's because we're seeing the version of him presented to the news and media as well as the behind-the-scenes version of him. There's not a lot of difference in personality on and off the news, though he certainly puts his game face on for the cameras. I'd probably vote for this guy. Inversely Elise is not necessarily a bad person, but she is kind of a brat. She's a bit selfish, likes to stir up drama from time to time, and cause small amounts of trouble in the interest of looking playful and cute. I didn't like her and had I met her, I doubt there would have been a second date, let alone a first one. While the two actors had some decent chemistry, I didn't see much of a reason for them to fall in love other than "they just clicked." That's a convenient reason to put characters together, but it robs them of potential depth and development.
This is a sci-fi film, but it's not high end science fiction. The science fiction/fantasy element plays an important role, but does not lend itself to big budget special effects or complex shots. There are special effects that are coyly inserted here and there when you aren't expecting it. It's subtle enough to avoid drawing you out of the scene and story to appreciate flashy visuals, yet sometimes so subtle that you catch yourself realizing a moment or two later that what you just saw couldn't have actually happened. It's not unlike the kind of sci-fi you'd see on the classic Twilight Zone television series. There is an interesting chase scene toward the end where David and Elise are teleporting through New York City's doorways similar to the scenes in Pixar's Monsters, Inc, though not nearly as elaborate. It's interesting, but probably won't blow your mind with visual effects and sci-fi wonderments.
There are some fascinating philosophical and theological implications in The Adjustment Bureau. I love stories that toss around ideas related to ethics, existentialism, and philosophy. There's a great deal of conflict between the ideas of free will and predestination. We have a story about a mundane existence that is totally a product of unseen manipulators trying to keep things going according to a specific plan. That lends itself to interesting Abrahamic theological implications such as an omnipotent and omniscient God. While not implicitly stated, it's suggested that The Chairman of The Adjustment Bureau represents God, while his caseworkers are angels. The downside to all these interesting ideas is that the movie seems to be too cautious to delve into these concepts that would lend themselves to a complex and fascinating theme for this movie. I suspect the filmmakers were reluctant to follow these implications too far, which is entirely understandable. The Adjustment Bureau could become thematically preachy if not kept in check.
Another very interesting aspect of this film is that while The Adjustment Bureau itself  is not at all evil, it does try to thwart our protagonists from reaching their goals, thus making The Bureau the antagonist in the story. There are several caseworkers from The Bureau that we meet whom are portrayed by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp. For the most part these characters do not actually threaten David with injury, death, or even pain to persuade him to follow his predetermined fate. Thompson (Stamp), the most imposing caseworker, does little more than give David an epic guilt trip. There really is no violence in this movie and not a lot of action other than a couple of chase scenes, yet it still expresses a sense of urgency, foreboding, and some suspense. That suggests some clever writing.
The Adjustment Bureau was a good movie that could have been a great one had it been a little more daring. For a sci-fi romance thriller, the romance is there though I didn't particularly like the female lead character. It certainly has some science fiction elements to it but it's not as loud and overbearing as most science fiction movies are, and the thrills might not put you on the edge of your seat. It's a more tame movie than what we are usually accustomed to for sci-fi, but that doesn't make it any less good. I recommend seeing The Adjustment Bureau, it's an interesting movie that will raise some fascinating questions for you to think about. It's a renter, or a good find if you happen upon it in a $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

Can you think of any other non-action science fiction movies? A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of my favorites, and I'm still looking forward to Upside Down. Comment below and tell me about some others!


  1. Sometimes a movie will raise more personal questions than it answers and sometimes that in itself is a good thing.

    1. Oh, I agree. It's a good thing when movies cause you to think and reflect upon your life. In the interest of story structure, a movie (or any story for that matter) should reach thematic closure before the end. It can still inspire personal reflection, but if it lacks closure, it will leave you hanging.
      Thanks for your comment!