Sci-fi is a humanistic genre. Even at its most farfetched, truly resonant science fiction has its biggest impact when saying something about who we are. A Scanner Darkly, for instance, has its most moving moment is in its final tribute to friends lost. Similarly Blade Runner uses cyberpunk visuals as a vehicle for questioning whether people can lead meaningful, happy lives in the face of their own mortality. They are high concept, but they are also a conduit for exploring our deepest fears about ourselves, and how much control we are able to exercise over our own lives.
Like those films, The Adjustment Bureau is a Phillip K. Dick adaptation, and plays on similar themes. Matt Damon’s career politician becomes aware of a shadowy cabal of supermen manipulating his life, and subsequently must fight their control to be with Emily Blunt’s dancer. Overseen by The Chairman – essentially God – and led by Mad Men’s John Slattery (who may never be allowed to appear minus tailored suit and fedora ever again), the Bureau are out to ensure that lives run ‘according to plan’, and too invested in his future to get rid of him, they instead attempt to keep Damon on course.
So far, so intriguing, and the film, directed by Bourne scribe George Nolfi, contains all the themes of paranoia, freedom and false selves that are the hallmarks of the best adaptations of Dick’s work. These preoccupations also chime with our own times, as Damon’s rise is shown via a sweeping montage of news clips and television appearances, cleverly equating a man whose fate is preordained with the way the 24 hour news cycle makes certain events look inevitable.
The Bureau’s introduction, all sharp suits and all-seeing menace, chimes perfectly with an ever-mysterious New York backdrop. Their ability to use doors as portals, such as when walking though a coat closet and into Yankee Stadium, is a striking visual motif. Interestingly otherworldly powers are combined with human foibles, as members are compared to caseworkers suffering emotional exhaustion, with both sides having to make choices according to plans they do not understand. It’s a level of nuance not often seen in $60 million movies.
Their human foibles continue in Damon’s chance reunion with Blunt – who he was supposed to meet only once – made possible only because his tail falls asleep and loses him. The Bureau’s only possible recourse – apart from lobotomising someone for whom they have grand designs – is to warn him of the ramifications of going ‘off plan’, thus cleverly placing free will, and not the film’s villains, centre stage. This turns out to be on of the film’s main strengths, as well as it’s major weakness.
Damon, for his part, convinces as a man fighting for his own choices, with the pressure of the Bureau’s meddling on one side nicely mirroring that of his political handlers on the other. Coming on the heels of True Grit, he’s fast developing into one of Hollywood’s finest actors, capable of bringing a real sense of inner turmoil and restlessness to the screen. Blunt, in a slighter role, is still emotionally persuasive, and the chemistry between the two leads is startlingly real. The desperate emotional heft of scenes that would seem clichéd in different hands reminds one of how rarely these pairings come off.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for The Adjustment Bureau’s other elements. The Bureau’s powers are ultimately poorly defined, and Nolfi makes it unclear whether to take them seriously, especially in moments of awful dialogue and pointless plot points, such as an inability to use their powers on water. It often seems like a kind of urban version of A Life Less Ordinary, in which inept angels inconsequentially attempt to keep lovers apart by interfering with their appointment books.
What’s more, a potentially thrilling, rain-soaked chase through New York is cut short, while the ending – not to mention numerous plot holes – undermines the moral dilemma supposedly driving the narrative. The fact that The Adjustment Bureau asks deeper questions is admirable, and it does so about an onscreen couple actually worth caring about. But in putting people centre stage and ignoring a sense of threat, The Adjustment Bureau has also forgotten what got us hooked in the first place.