The Adjustment Bureau is something rare: an enthralling, literate science fiction flick imbued with existential density, thematic texture, humanity and emotional warmth. In a sense, it is the motion picture that Christopher Nolan’s over-celebrated, emotionally barren Inception should have been. Admittedly, there is a mainstream-friendly vibe pervading the final third of this picture, and a few clichés are inescapable, yet the movie succeeds due to the fact that the audience can easily become invested in the characters’ fates. And, most importantly for a sci-fi thriller, The Adjustment Bureau poses thought-provoking questions and conveys provocative concepts. For a Hollywood product to tick such boxes in an age of brainless action extravaganzas, it’s a miracle.
Electoral candidate David Norris (Damon) is on the verge of becoming the youngest congressman to be elected senator of New York. However, due to unforseen bad press on the eve of the election, he is robbed of would-be victory. Prior to his concession speech, David has a chance meeting with spirited dancer Elise (Blunt) and romantic sparks fly, but Elise scurries away before providing any contact details. Yet, it is David’s experience with Elise that paves the way for the widely respected speech he delivers thereafter. Three fortuitous years later, David and Elise coincidentally cross paths again on a bus, and David attempts to woo her permanently. Unfortunately, the coupling apparently interferes with the “master plan” for both of their lives. Consequently, the Adjustment Bureau soon enters the picture. A group of formerly-dressed men who take orders from an enigmatic “Chairman”, the Adjustment Bureau make sure everything goes to plan, and for unknown reasons they are determined to prevent David and Elise from falling in love.
The premise is derived from Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story The Adjustment Team. Like a majority of the cinematic adaptations of Dick’s short stories, The Adjustment Bureau‘s writer-director George Nolfi was not entirely faithful to the original text, but he did retain the basic framework. Fortunately, before the sci-fi material takes hold, the film goes to great pains to put itself and its protagonist in the real world. There is a tremendous amount of character development during the film’s first act, allowing us to get to know David as a flesh-and-blood human. Furthermore, perhaps the most remarkable thing aboutThe Adjustment Bureau is that we can believe this romance from the start. When David and Elise have a leisurely conversation during their first meeting, there’s a palpable romantic spark between them. It’s easy to understand why the two are interested in each other, since, as humans, most of us can relate to the exhilarating feeling we experience when we meet and are dazzled by someone. Plus, the two characters simplyclick.
The Adjustment Bureau is a tight, resourceful thriller that’s unhurried but does not waste a single second of screen-time. Once the foundation of David’s everyday existence is shattered, the film shifts forward at breakneck fluidity with taut exposition and some exhilarating set-pieces. Yet, Nolfi did not forget how crucial the story’s human side is. After all, at its heart, The Adjustment Bureau is a poignant, powerful romance between two people who seem right for each other but face a unique kind of force keeping them apart. As a matter of fact, it’s genuinely surprisingly that The Adjustment Bureau is more of a romance than a sci-fi thriller. This is not to say that the Twilight Zone aspects are ignored or reduced to background colour, but the film is more concerned with provoking an emotional response than a logical one. The story is about love conquering all, and about people who risk everything for a chance at romantic joy and happiness.
Furthermore, it’s impressive to note that the picture dabbles in numerous genres yet manages to be completely airtight in its tone. After kicking off as a politics-laced romantic comedy (WTF?!), The Adjustment Bureau eventually veers towards mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, action, and cat-and-mouse thriller. Also, without using any usual scare tactics that one might typically see in a B-grade horror flick, Nolfi was able to build a disquieting, eerie mood. This is Nolfi’s directorial debut (his former day-job was as screenwriter extraordinaire, having co-written The Bourne Ultimatum and other films), and it’s a promising one. Commendably, Nolfi managed to handle the exposition with consummate skill; teasing viewers with tiny pieces of godly reveal, and keeping the Bureau’s origins playfully ambiguous. Credit is also due to veteran cinematographer John Toll who contributed to the stylish visual flair, and to Thomas Newman for his excellent score. The film’s finale is utterly breathtaking, with a unique, pulse-pounding foot chase through the streets of New York. However, the tidy way the film wraps up does admittedly feel too mainstream-friendly. It’s a satisfying ending, but perhaps a bit out-of-place in a film that’s otherwise so unpredictable.
Matt Damon is pitch-perfect as David Norris. Damon comes across as intrinsically human without ever having to try, and he’s an easy protagonist to care about and relate to. Alongside him, Emily Blunt is an excellent match for Damon, and their blistering chemistry fortunately keeps the focus on the characters rather than the mechanics of the narrative. Meanwhile, as members of the Adjustment Bureau, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie are both strong performers, and look as if they walked right out of a black-and-white 1940s movie and into this one. Rounding out the main players is Terence Stamp, who afforded a perfect amount of iciness and regality to his role.
Considering the usual standard for big-budget Hollywood motion pictures in this day and age, it is indeed refreshing to witness a film like The Adjustment Bureau; an assured, smart, creative sci-fi thriller which does not forget about humanity and warmth.
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