Do you have free will? It’s quite a question. The Calvinists and Hindus say “no.” The Catholics, the Muslims, the Jews, and the Lutherans say “yes.” It’s a question that people have fought over since the age of the cavemen. I can imagine homo erectus sitting by his fire and wondering, “Did Ugh leave the tribe because he wanted to, or did the Great Mammoth in the sky make him do it?” It’s a question that strikes right down to the very core of human self-awareness. If we don’t really have free will, then our thoughts are not our own, our relationships are not real, and our eternal destiny is something in which we have no say. Good and evil don’t really exist in this world. In fact, our whole existence is equivalent to a child manipulating plastic action figures on top of his colorful little train-set table. However, if we do have free will, then there’s actually something to fear in life. There’s the fear of real and true evil. There’s a fear that our eternal salvation can be undone by our own impurities. Wars have been fought over this question. Now, a movie has been made about it.
The name of the movie is The Adjustment Bureau, a pseudo-science fiction, romantic action thriller that tries to bend our minds around a supernatural concept. It’s a film of paradoxes and Einsteinian trains of thought, not to mention just a tad of quantum mechanics. I have always loved films that made me think in quadratic ways. Movies that make my mind go (in a figure of speech) to the top of the Penrose Steps, if you will, have always intrigued me. Director George Nolfi based his screenplay on a story by Philip K. Dick, who also wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner). Now The Adjustment Bureau had a lot of potential to be a really thought-provoking mind bender, but somehow dropped the ball in the process of throwing it too high. It wasn’t complex enough or baffling enough to make it believable to me, and it dabbled a little too much in the pool of fantasy fiction. Still, I must say that the film is well-made and raises some interesting question about purpose and “fate”.
Matt Damon plays New York State Congressman David Norris who, on the night he loses his campaign for United States Senate, meets a striking young woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s bathroom of all places. She frees something up in him and he subsequently delivers a knock-out defeat speech that puts him in the forerunning of the next Senate election. The next day, through random chance, he meets Elise again on a bus. They talk, and David decides that Elise must be his soul mate. However, “the plan” says that David was never supposed to see Elise again. Or so says The Adjustment Bureau, a team of mysterious men in hats who go around making sure people do things according to plan. This team of adjusters seems to be immortal or infinite, possessing certain supernatural abilities. They don’t get hurt easily, and they can travel anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye through a complex series of doors. When David discovers the bureau’s existence, he is told that he is never to see Elise again, under the threat of having his memory wiped.
David is devastated, but despite the threats of the bureau he continues to see Elise. But the minute their romance kicks off, the men in hats close in about him, determined that he continue according to plan. At this point, the film really missed an opportunity to become the next great paradox movie. Instead of delving into the deep concepts that this movie implies the film just skims the surface, sacrificing matters of religious, mathematical, and scientific importance for romance and action. The adjusters seem to work for a higher power called the Chairman, and maybe the bureau is some sort of team of angels. It seems to me like that point could have been elaborated upon more. The real question here is who has free will? Does everyone both physical and spirit have free will? Maybe we don’t, but the adjusters and the Chairman do. Or maybe only the Chairman has an ultimate decisive power. The film doesn’t get nearly deep enough into all of this. Really all it deals with is how much trouble do you have to cause to change the Chairman’s mind.
On the other hand, the film is well made and well acted, especially by Emily Blunt in virtually the only female role in the entire film. At times the film successfully grabbed my emotions and really made me care about the characters. So the film prevails in making me care about the people in it and what happens to them. In a scene near the end, David and Elise are running from the adjustment team and Elise begins to break down. It’s a very emotional scene, executed perfectly by the actors and the director, but then again that’s not really the point of the movie. I think at heart the movie is a romantic melodrama, not a sci-fi mind bender. I like how director George Nolfi frames each shot and tries to get as much meaning from every shot as possible. At times the film is beautiful, at times it’s frightening. As a psychological thriller, the movie works. But on a greater level of intellect, it fails.
It seems to me like the movie is trying to follow in the wake of last summer’s fantastic mind puzzle Inception. Well, The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t hold a candle to Inception’s well thought out, brain twisting parallel universes. On the other hand, Inception never got to the emotional level that The Adjustment Bureau does. I would have liked it better had the adjusters gone about their business in a way more set in reality. With a flick of their wrists they can move doors and make the floor rise. They use all sorts of strange technology to wipe peoples’ minds. I think it would have been better if their tactics were a tad more realistic. With such an enormously controversial premise, you would think that the film would be more complex. I found it much too simple of a film to adequately explore the concept. However the film does raise some interesting questions. Methinks to myself, “Are these thoughts of criticism mine own, or someone else’s?” I guess I won’t know until it’s all over.
“I so keep pushing and crowding . . . Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Chapter 132, “The Symphony”)
Universal Pictures Presents in association with Media Rights Capital, a Gambit Pictures Production
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terrence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, Jon Stewart. Directed by George Nolfi
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and violent images. Release Date: 04 March 2011