Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Has any other sci-fi author had more of his stories adapted into major motion pictures than Philip K. Dick? Admittedly the adaptations often deviate so hugely that you can barely recognize the premise, but there's sure been plenty of them, and many of them have been great movies. The Adjustment Bureau certainly is no Blade Runner but it's a solid, enjoyable movie. Spoilers follow.

The premise of the movie is easy enough to glimpse the basics of from the trailer: there are people moving around us making small "adjustments" to our fates. But the people who made the trailer did a great job of not giving away too much of what the story is actually about -- enough to lure you in, but not so much that there's not still a lot to learn at the theater. Like who they actually are, and what they actually do, and why.

Another thing that's not obvious from the trailer is that, while there are a few chase sequences and some action, it's not really an action movie. It's a mix of character study (particularly of Matt Damon's character), a romance tale, and good old-fashioned speculative fiction -- exploring a 'what if' without really feeling a need for the answer to always be "things explode".

The romance part might take some people by surprise, but I have to hand it to them, they pull it off without any problem. That thing that everyone calls "chemistry" (and usually gives all the credit to the actors for), whatever it really is, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have it, in every scene they share. Their romance is absolutely believable on a human level, not larger than life. And this is a good thing, since the movie really depends on this, more than you'd expect.

The actual adjustment bureau are played very nicely, with a really great style. I particularly liked how their hats (which later became a plot point!) and clothes, and the style of their building, seemed to harken from Philip K. Dick's time -- as if they simply haven't been modernized while the rest of the story has. Which is appropriate: if you were a being that lived centuries or millennia or maybe forever, you probably wouldn't update your sense of personal style until you had to, until it finally stood out so much it got in the way of the work. (That's probably also why they use words like 'chairman' and 'bureau,' affecting a sort of corporate or governmental feel; in past times, they probably took on other terminology that let them fit in, and they only change that when they have to.) It not only makes sense, it helped give the film a more atmospheric feel.

My only quibble with the bureau is the unnecessary telekinesis. We see them have this power a few times in the movie, but they don't really need it, and it's kind of boring, the minimal way it's used. We see Harry make David's coffee cup burst on the bus, but this mostly just seems to be there to establish they have this power, it doesn't do anything in the story; it's just placing Chekov's gun. Richardson uses it to trip David as he tries to escape, but that could just as easily have been done by him having placed something there in advance, since he knows -- and makes a point of it, right there in that very scene! -- that David was going to run and need to be tripped just there. And then, in the only time it was necessary, Thompson uses it to make Elise sprain her ankle. That's really it. Their ability to foresee, anticipate, and head off people's decisions is interesting; their means of travel through doors is compelling; but TK just for that is boring. It's putting way too big a power in for way too little use.

It would have been far more compelling if they had done these things through foresight. Harry could have slipped into the coffee shop and switched the cup with a faulty one (or that could have been simply struck from the story). Richardson could have set up a trip bar or other trap where David was sure to run. And Thompson could have previously weakened a spot on the floor, or made a light loose to swing and catch Elise in the eye, or any of a dozen other techniques that depend on knowing what was going to happen before it happened -- and otherwise being mundane. I think that would have been a stronger storytelling device.

One final thought about the movie: in a way, isn't it the same story as It's A Wonderful Life? I'll leave it to you to draw the parallels.

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