The Sci-Fi as Rom-Com
A review of The Adjustment Bureau.


Thomas S. Hibbs

The new film The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi, features Matt Damon as David Norris, a politician whose chance encounter with Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) complicates not only his career ambitions but his naïve assumptions about freedom and destiny. The plot, based loosely on a Philip K. Dick short story, involves an adjustment team charged by a mysterious power with tweaking events for the sake of the greater good. Nolfi picks up this motif from Dick’s story and makes it the vehicle for testing the love between David and Elise. In a successful fusion of genres, he inscribes a sci-fi thriller within a romantic comedy and the result is an entertaining, amusing, and at times moving film.


In Dick’s short story, the adjustment team botches its plan to orchestrate the appropriate moment for an insurance salesman, Ed Fletcher, to arrive at work. The adjustment, we learn later in the story, is necessary because it will trigger a series of events resulting in greater scientific collaboration between nations and thus contribute to international peace. Things go awry and Ed arrives in the middle of the adjustment. He observes his office building disintegrating into fragments and co-workers into ash. Having witnessed “the fabric of reality open” and seen “behind” things, Fletcher begins to question everything, including his own sanity. Because its activities have been detected, the adjustment team must consider a direct intervention with Fletcher, to maintain the team’s secrecy. The story ends abruptly and cryptically.


Dick’s story is brief and tantalizing, like a Twilight Zone episode. Nolfi makes two significant changes: With mixed success, he tries to invest the plot with philosophical significance; and, with greater success, he expands the plot into a romance between star-crossed lovers. At various points in The Adjustment Bureau, viewers will be reminded of other films. One of Nolfi’s previous script assignments was for The Bourne Ultimatum, and some scenes here are reminiscent of Matt Damon’s work as Jason Bourne. The theme of supernatural beings adjusting reality echoes the well-crafted sci-fi thriller Dark City, while the role of chance in love suggests the romantic comedy Serendipity.


The film begins on election night, as Norris confronts the painful realization of loss. Last-minute exposure of his frat-boy antics costs him a huge lead in the polls. As he privately rehearses his concession speech, he encounters Elise. In the course of their brief meeting, the attraction is palpable. But the encounter, much less a long-term relationship, is not meant to be, or so the adjustment team insists. The preference of the team is to work at the margins of events, unnoticed by human beings. When another chance encounter reunites David and Elise, the members of the team take a more direct approach. By turns threatening and instructive, they try to convince David that things will not go well for him, Elise, or humanity if he pursues her. David is hardly docile to the wishes of the adjustment bureau and so the outcome of the story hinges both on the force of the attraction between the two lovers and the conflict between David and the adjustment team: freedom vs. fate.