In the post-”Inception” age of science fiction, there’s a new standard for philosophical, thought-provoking storytelling in big studio films of the genre. “The Adjustment Bureau,” the latest movie adaptation of one of legendary author Philip K. Dick’s short stories, not only lives up to this standard but even exceeds it in some regards as it asks the question, “Can free will overcome the power of fate?” Surprisingly, the film accomplishes the inconceivable feat of delivering a romantic adventure that’s actually — gasp! — intellectually-stimulating.
Hollywood everyman Matt Damon leads in another role for which he’s perfectly suited, as up-and-coming politician David Norris, a man destined for great things. Yet after losing the race for a seat in the senate, David’s overwhelming personal defeat shifts towards a hopeful future as he meets the girl of his dreams, Elise (Emily Blunt) — a brief encounter which inspires him to give the speech of his life.
But he was only supposed to see her once. When the Adjustment Bureau (a mysterious group of men in suits and fedoras who make sure everything happens according to “the plan”) fails to stop David from running into her again and falling for her, they must directly intervene with his life. David learns how these “adjusters” work — moving behind the scenes making sure everyone stays in line with the plan laid out for them. Unwilling to accept a life without the woman he loves, David devotes himself to diverging from his plan to instead be with Elise — a choice of free will that the fate-enforcing adjusters will do everything possible to prevent him from fulfilling.
Philip K. Dick adaptations have a spotty track record, from sci-fi at its provocative best (“Blade Runner,” “Minority Report”) to dumbed-down gimmickry (“Paycheck,” “Next”) and even absurd experimental oddity (“A Scanner Darkly”); thankfully this one falls squarely into the first category. Writer/director George Nolfi deftly integrates the unique love story into this world controlled by the Adjustment Bureau, raising profound questions that make viewers think while simultaneously providing character-driven escapist fare with a pleasant dose of humor, too.
Nolfi examines the totality of fate and the extent of our free will, the ripple effect that seemingly insignificant actions or decisions can cause and the search for love juxtaposed against the dream of success and achievement. It’s refreshing to experience such deep themes implemented into such a crowd-pleasing story. And while it feels like there are some inconsistencies in the plot early on, those are ironed out and make sense later, actually highlighting more of the numerous details which reveal how the world of the adjusters affects our own.
However, the very beginning of the movie feels trite and silly with a cliché montage and some wooden acting from the adjusters. David soon meets Elise though, and from that point on the sparks fly and it’s all smooth sailing. Damon has proven himself over and over again to be one of the most engaging and capable actors working today, always an immensely likable leading man. Here he brings his trademark charm, sensitivity and drive to light up the screen.
Blunt, on the other hand, tends to demonstrate commendable acting skill but lacks an appealing charisma in a number of her roles. But not to worry, here she radiates with a newfound warmth and elegance, and the dynamic chemistry between her and Damon turns out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film.
The adjusters give pretty entertaining performances as well, despite being more mechanical characters. John Slattery of TV’s “Mad Men” leads the team following David, injecting just enough wit and personality into his assured authority to command respect but still make funny quips occasionally. Alternatively, David’s original adjuster Anthony Mackie plays the sympathetic enemy role, which he is unable to elevate beyond more than the nice wimp of the adjusters. It’s the intimidating Terence Stamp who fares best though, portraying the grizzled veteran in the bureau brought out of retirement to “fix” David’s case with ruthless efficiency.
Comparisons to “Inception” are to be expected due to some similarities between Damon’s character and Leonardo DiCaprio’s in that far more weighty thriller, but “The Adjustment Bureau” bears a lot more likeness to the “Matrix” series and the lesser-seen “The Box.” The adjusters move around the city using shortcut gateways provided by doors that can magically transport them all over town, a visual concept taken straight from “The Matrix Reloaded” but put to much better use here. This makes for several thrilling chase sequences that flow with suspenseful adrenaline and exhibit plenty of breathtaking locations around NYC, in addition to showcasing some dazzling cinematography and subtle but awesome special effects.
Smart, low-key sci-fi doesn’t get much more accessible than “The Adjustment Bureau.” Fascinating concepts, a compelling story and a developed world within it challenge the intellectual filmgoer, while a sweeping romance, strong characters and a quick pace can satisfy those simply looking for a worthy adjustment to their weekend plans.
Three out of Four Stars