Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—The Adjustment Bureau

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I’m delving into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and focus specifically on the films themselves.

I’m almost done looking into these adaptations, and in this penultimate Dick column I will be reviewing The Adjustment Bureau (2011).

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The Adjustment Bureau

Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” this underrated film was directed by George Nolfi. Once again following Dick’s theme of fate versus free will, this time we focus on “the Plan.” The mysterious Chairman (without coming right out and saying it, it’s God) has a plan for all of us, and he uses emissaries to ensure that plan moves forward. In an interesting take on a well-worn theme, the Chairman sees all but only lets the emissaries in on the information that is helpful to them. For example, to make sure two people don’t meet, cause a cup of coffee to spill so that one person has to go home to change their shirt, missing the bus that the other person is on.

Elaborate plans to keep two people apart: why? Because together they’ll be happy, but apart they’ll go on to accomplish great things. Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young congressman who wants to go against the plan and find Elise (Emily Blunt). To do this he must take on these emissaries—the Adjustment Bureau, led by Richardson (John Slattery straight out of Mad Men). The plan—I feel like this should be in air quotes every time I write it—has them meet at the start of the film when David is at a crossroads in his life. Elise helps motivate him but then is supposed to disappear from his life, leaving him to constantly strive.  David doesn’t like this and is persistent enough to dig deeper into finding her.

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Who watches the watchers? The adjustment team observing.

Though this is not a dystopic film in the traditional sense, one of the adjustment team, played by Terence Stamp, reveals that without the Bureau’s help, humanity suffered through the Dark Ages, both world wars, and the Great Depression. With its help, we had the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Trying to save us from dystopia by suppressing free will? Sounds like dystopia to me. This is George Nolfi’s first and so far only feature film, which is a shame, because there’s a lot of thought there. Nolfi started as a screenwriter, giving us films that include Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. He also wrote the screenplay for The Adjustment Bureau, and it shows a sure hand with the material and what he wants to convey.

The film takes place in New York, and the setting almost becomes a character itself; you can tell Nolfi and cinematographer John Toll love the city. Matt Damon exudes the great aww-shucks quality he brings to the films he’s in. You can’t help but to root for him, and the charm that plays perfectly in his role as a young politician running for office. You can see the decisions weighing in his eyes when he is confronted by the adjustment team. Emily Blunt plays a much stronger romantic interest than a lot of films have, and there’s a great scene in the film where she has to decide whether to trust David or not. It’s almost heartbreaking, but you can see Elise’s character and determination. Wonderfully acted by both. And outside the two leads, I’d say the casting is very well done across the board. Besides John Slattery and the fun turn from Terence Stamp (General Zod himself), the conscience of the team, Anthony Mackie (the Falcon from Captain America), definitely makes an impression.

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David (Matt Damon) and Elise (Emily Blunt)

There’s some effects work, but it fits the plot and doesn’t feel forced. I love when effects add to the plot and aren’t trying to “be” plot.  This film is about the characters and their choices—it’s probably the most dramatic work a Philip K. Dick adaptation has had, in the traditional sense of the word. Almost all of the other films based on his work have focused on the action; this is almost a character piece. Yes, there are sci-fi elements with the adjustment team, but it’s not a big spectacle; it’s much more subtle. It allows the characters and the ideas to breathe a lot more than in most other adaptations. I think it helps that the setting is supposed to be modern day and not the future or near future.

The plot is definitely important to the story, but it goes hand in hand with the ideas, and I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t seen it. I highly recommend this film, and I look forward to what Nolfi brings us next.

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Part of the Plan!

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick:

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