At first glance, I was expecting nothing more than a romance set in some watered down version of Dark City where the ‘strangers’ preferred a more 50s guise to looking like an army of Billy Corgan clones and spent their time meddling in people’s love lives rather than conducting interstellar experiments.
Generally Matt Damon has pretty good taste in terms of the scripts he gets involved with; I was doubly disappointed that he’d get tied up in this. So it came as something of a relief to find out that the film is actually an expansion of Philip K. Dick’s The Adjustment Team.
You will, of course, know Philip K. Dick from the perennial propensity Hollywood has of translating his fiction into films whenever the ‘original idea’ barrel begins to run low (i.e. Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and nearly a dozen others).
A well read PKD fan myself, I settled into my seat in the cinema expecting some at least marginally mind-bending sci-fi mixed with (as my research before-hand indicated) a bit of romance. I was lied to.
The film is true to the short story insofar as the kernel that the story is written around has become the mechanic the two lovers must overcome in order to be together; in the PKD version, the protagonist simply stumbles across an organisation capable of altering the natural flow of cause and effect by either subtly engineering or preventing situations or by ‘adjusting’ people’s mental processes for how they make decisions. That’s about all there is to the short story.
The movie version expands on the short story by allowing Matt Damon to fall head over heels in love with a woman that this organisation is adamant he should have nothing to do with, and then watching him do everything in his power to be with her. In short, it’s a romance that’s merely hijacked the PKD element and presented it as the obstacle the couple must overcome in order to achieve a happy ending. It could just as easily be swapped out for a domineering mother figure, a inconvenient fiancée, being forced to carry on the relationship long-distance… you get the idea.
The arbitrariness of some of the mechanics of the sci-fi element also get facea bit ridiculous; never mind that the unnamed organisation is omnipotent, they can’t track you when it’s raining, the ‘back-doors’ are clearly ripped off from the Matrix, and really… magic hats?
However, the movie isn’t a total write-off. I did find myself genuinely invested in the characters. Damon is excellent as always, and Emily Blunt shines as a complicated, moody dancer. And although the film is a little too overt in drawing parallels to religion (the ‘strangers’ are angels, the organisation’s CEO is God, etc.), it does provide Matt Damon with the opportunity to demand answers to some pretty esoteric questions, to grapple with existential philosophy, and to Jason Bourne his way into God’s office building.
At the end of the day, The Adjustment Bureau is a romance that’s strip-mined PKD to make the plot ‘go’. However, it was inventive enough to be entertaining, and even if the film isn’t brave enough to try to answer some of the questions it hints at, I’ll at least give it credit for trying to point out to the audience that the questions are there, and we should find our answers.