The Adjustment Bureau

cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, and John Slattery

director: George Nolfi

101 minutes (12) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Adjustment Bureau

You have to love Dick. While everyone else in the SF continuum was still clumping on about Moon-bases and adventuring to Mars, he – and well, maybe J.G. Ballard too, was already into the next level of weirdness. Which is why Dick only later came into posthumous public consciousness, but did so with a vengeance – Arnie’s lumbering Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Tom Cruise’s Minority Report, Screamers – plus one of the finest SF films of them all, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, are all derived from Philip K. Dick’s paranoid vision.

Now here’s The Adjustment Bureau which might just be described as a romance of star-crossed lovers. Although the original short story by Dick – in Orbit magazine (September 1954), wasn’t a romance. Nothing like it… But not much of that original plot remains. What stays intact is the theme. The idea; the concept. That familiar Dickian riff that life is not as we know, or understand, it… This time, history is not a random process. It is controlled, edited and manipulated. And the determining factor here is a spilled coffee. David Norris (Matt Damon) is tipped to be New York senator when his campaign is derailed by a prank mooning film-clip from his college years.

Already the youngest-ever congressman, he’s the kind of clean-cut JFK honest politician you only ever find in US productions. He’s snub-nosed in what some might consider an endearingly cute way. He meets a girl in a black dress as she’s coming out of the cubicle in the gents, where she’s been hiding to avoid hotel security. She is Elise (Emily Blunt), who does contemporary dance for the ‘Cedar Lake’ ballet and has something of the arty-cookiness Diane Keaton deployed to such effect in Annie Hall. “Do I know you?” he asks. No, but he soon will, despite the vast omnipotent cosmic forces ranged against them. They kiss; then she disappears, hotly chased by security. This is where the coffee comes in. With his election plans scuppered he prepares to take the bus to a dull meeting about solar panels. But his movements are being monitored by mysterious ‘men in black’. It’s they who conspire that he must spill coffee on his shirt at 07:05, setting up a chain of consequences. As it is, the operator responsible – Harry (Anthony Mackie) nods off on the bench, and misses the vital moment, an omission that initiates an ‘endless ripple effect’.

David catches the bus he was supposed to miss, finds himself sitting next to Elise, eyeing up her attractively abbreviated miniskirt. They are reunited. Then, arriving at the office he finds the personnel frozen into immobility and being scanned by the men in black. He’s seen behind a curtain he’s not even supposed to know exists. The correctly spilled coffee would have ensured none of this happened. Now, they must level with him, and warn him off. So they explain that they are the Intervention Team who, “make sure things happen according to plan.” They monitor the world.

They can reset and recalibrate reality. They have ledgers with dots moving across grids to represent the intersection of lives. Some things are meant to happen. Others are not meant to happen. He is destined, it is hinted, for the Presidency. She is to become a world-renowned dancer. His career needs his raw hunger. She would fill the hunger, and de-motivate him. Hence their love is not part of the plan. So he tries to give her up, he really does. But, like the lyrics from a cheesy pop-tune, theirs is a love so strong it breaks all the rules. Three years later he’s back on the campaign-trail when he glimpses her on the street, and, despite deliberate obstruction, it begins again.

The ‘adjuster’ Thompson (an acidic Terence Stamp) stands at the foot of their bed as they sleep together. “Whatever happened to free will?” David protests. Only to be told “you don’t have free will. You have the appearance of free will.” … “All I have is the choices I make,” he argues back, “and I choose her.” At the same moment she falls and sprains her ankle, a warning that they’re capable of wrecking her dance-career if events are not kept on-plan. Again, against his better judgment, he walks out on her. Some critics detect trace-elements of Christian mythology in the film’s ‘free will’ versus ‘determinism’ equation, but it’s not necessary to buy into such superstitious hokum to be intrigued by the concept. Are they angels? Not quite, although some theologies have seen them that way.

Are they an ultimately benevolent extraterrestrial race shepherding truculent delinquent humanity towards a better evolutionary maturity? Or a secretive Dan Brown conspiracy-cabal exerting a tentacular influence in furtherance of their own control-freakery objectives? In truth they seem more a dull grey bureaucracy, headed by the Chairman – no messing here with the non-gender-specific ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’. No, it’s the antique Judeo-Christian male authority figure. And they’ve been guiding history forever. Whenever they step back the Roman Empire collapses into Dark Age barbarism, or Nazi dictators destabilise the world into global war. But Norse pagan mythology also invented the Norns, the three Fates who weave the individual threads of our lives into the vast tapestry of existence.

Harry Harrison, with Kathleen Maclean wrote a charming fantasy The Web Of The Norns about it. So it’s a recurrent idea; a useful metaphor. And 11 months later, David is ahead in the polls. While in a spiteful rebound she’s engaged to her ex. The Plan is back on track. The credits for the film include ‘visual effects’, but its less CGI spectacle than it is human story. The main visual gimmick is the magic doors by which the Adjusters navigate around the city, a network explained in the DVD bonus featurette, Leaping Through New York, although in truth it’s a cinema-splice no more impressive than stepping into, and out of the Tardis.

Meanwhile, only Adjuster Harry has doubts, with his sense of aggrieved responsibility bothering him. He confides to David that the intensity of their love is due to the fact that in a previous draft of the ‘Plan’ they were destined to be together. Their intense attraction is a “remnant from old plans.” So the Plan is not inflexible. It can be amended. Harry also helpfully divulges the secret of the dimensional ‘doors’ – turn the doorknob clockwise and wear a fedora, enabling David to give The Graduate’s wedding-prevention dash a sci-fi twist.

One step through the Museum of Modern Art, the next into the Manhattan Pumping Station, a race through the rain in and out of doors, as the Bureau pursues, and then calls in the Intervention Team for an emergency reality-reset. In a reprise of their first meeting, David finds a troubled Elise again, in the courthouse bathroom, reuniting the lovers. Like the lyrics from another cheesy pop-tune, he sort-of tells her, ‘if loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right’, and they escape through the door to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where they determine to take their protest direct to the Chairman.

Towards a final confrontation on the roof of a building overlooking Central Park, and the Plan is rewritten in their favour. Strength of will and determination, it seems, can change your destiny. Very little of that is present in the original Philip K. Dick short story – just the idea of the omnipotent ‘Adjustment Team’ monitoring and editing, altering and guiding human lives. So when the Internet goes down, and you think it’s chance. Sometimes, just sometimes, it is. There was once a cartoon in New Musical Express of a nerdy sci-fi geek getting seriously menaced for innocently enquiring ‘do you like Dick or Moorcock?’ Well, out beyond the geek-o-sphere we all love Dick now. Unless we have all just been ‘adjusted’ that way?