In 1978, Philip K. Dick wrote an essay titled How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. Among other things, in this essay he mentions two themes which attracted him to science-fiction: What is reality? What does it mean to be human? At the heart of all great science-fiction are these two questions. Many years previous, Philip K. Dick published the short story Adjustment Team. Recently, newcomer director George Nolfi found and adapted this story into The Adjustment Bureau and like any great science-fiction, it explores the same two questions.
Imagine it was an ordinary day – maybe a first day at a new job – when, without any warning, you glimpse something no human is meant to see. Reality is no longer what you thought it was. This is how The Adjustment Bureau begins. Dave Norris (Damon) peaks behind the curtain and his reality becomes suddenly and irreversibly unglued (Dick writes in How to Build a Universe that he secretly enjoys building universes that become unglued). Adjusters, emotionally stunted bureaucrats with long life-spans, have been secretly controlling the fate of humanity, unnoticed until now. Norris has a choice, reveal their existence and be left a drooling vegetable, or, live your life pretending you never seen a thing.
We can understand why Norris chooses door number two, but when a character’s reality is unglued and his universe is falling apart, we should not expect him to act rationally. This is even more complicated when a chance meeting between Norris and Elise Sellas (Blunt), whom the adjusters forbid him from seeing, begins to blossom into a relationship.
In essence, The Adjustment Bureau is an unconventional love-story. Norris and Elise are challenged by the adjusters yet the adjuster’s are not presented as villains. They have no nefarious plots nor do the wish anyone harm. In fact, they claim to be looking out for the best interests of all involved. This is the greatest achievement of the film; the audience is able to root for both Norris and the adjusters because both represent often conflicting parts of ourselves. Norris is impulsive and wants to be with the woman he loves now. The adjusters are rational. They see the big picture and know what is best for Norris and his career in the long-term. Of course, it is hard not to root for the adjuster when the always great and charismatic Terrance Stamp enters the film.
One of the most interesting themes of The Adjustment Bureau is the duality of fate and chance. The adjusters have limited power. They guide people along certain paths but human choice and chance can still have an effect. This is emphasized during a conversation between Norris and an adjuster. The adjuster, feeling guilty, mentions the lives he’s taken, when Norris asks of his mother. The adjuster says her death was just chance. I don’t think either answer would have been comforting.
This is a type of movie which is being made less and less frequently. While not “hard sci-fi,” it does challenge its viewers and pose interesting questions. Is free-will a prerequisite for humanity? Is the illusion of free-will an apt substitute for free-will? In a movie landscape featuring countless sequels, prequels, and humdrum remakes, it is rare for intelligent science-fiction movies, such as this, to find funding. Without science-fiction, who will ask these questions? How will we ever know if the dreams of androids consist of electric sheep?