Politics & Policy

The Sci-Fi as Rom-Com

A review of The Adjustment Bureau.

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.


Among the great strengths of the film are the performances — as members of the team — of Terence Stamp, John Slattery, and Anthony Mackie. As Richardson, Slattery — best known as Mad Men’s Roger Sterling — is especially noteworthy, alternately imperious and ironically self-effacing. He explains to David that his job is to “monitor the whole world” and that the relationship with Elise is not “according to plan.” Richardson admonishes David, “You have seen behind a curtain that you weren’t even supposed to know existed.” In an indication of what further disobedience might bring, Richardson inflicts grave physical pain. But he is not the violent autocrat he seems; his humor emerges as he marvels at David’s resilience and ability to outsmart the adjustment team. The possibility of something approaching an equal battle between David and the team seems at once impossible, given the inequities in knowledge and power, and necessary, for the credibility of the plot. Without it, the forces of fate would simply overrule the purported freedom of humans.


But the forces of fate here seem to want as much as possible for humans to cooperate freely. They also seem at times befuddled and feeble. At one moment, they seem capable of bending physical reality to their will; at another, they cannot catch up to David as he boards a city bus. The contrast, in the adjustment team, between power and impotence, and knowledge and ignorance, is a source of much of the comedy in the film. Pressed by David about the “plan,” they refer to the dictates of the “Chairman” but then admit their ignorance about the design. It seems that the plan is revisable, subject to change in light of unforeseen events.


It is unclear what we are to make of the Chairman and his plan. On the surface, he seems a second-rate, anthropomorphic deity, learning and adapting on the fly. But given the team’s imperfect awareness of the scheme of things, adjustment might indicate no more than their ignorance of the ultimate design, the wisdom of providence seen from the limited perspective of beings more like us than like God. The film reasonably leaves this issue open.


The most interesting question in the film has to do with the connections between intention, knowledge, and responsibility. David loves Elise and intends to marry her and to pursue jointly their dreams, his for politics and hers for dance. In an effort to dissuade David from his path, the adjustment team warns that the romance will destroy both of their plans. And he is given a vision of how painful that will be. Such a vision might make us grateful for the relative ignorance in which we normally make decisions. The burden of knowing the future course of events flowing from, if not directly caused by, a particular choice would be onerous and paralyzing.


David refuses to accept the predictions; fortunately for him and Elise, the purportedly certain knowledge possessed by the adjustment team turns out to be just one provisional outcome. Contingency in the course of things makes possible not just tragic conclusions but also comic ones, happy as well as sad endings. Without contingency, there would be no freedom and no drama.


The result is a story nearly as far from the darkly comic spirit of Philip K. Dick as is conceivable. In his most philosophical and prophetic moments, Dick urged that if you “push philosophy and theology to their ultimate terms,” you discover “nothing.” And that, he said, is funny. His stories seek the “mustard seed of the funny at the core of the horrible.” Some film versions of Dick stories, for example Blade Runner and Minority Report, contain large doses of this sort of humor, even if Spielberg’s version of Minority Report alters, in quite predictable ways, Dick’s understated ending so as to highlight the recovery of innocence and the romantic adulation of the family. Nolfi turns Dick’s cryptic and subversive tale into a romantic comedy. But the presence of sci-fi elements transforms what would otherwise be a pedestrian tale into an intriguing and entertaining film.


— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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