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The Adjustment Bureau: Choice, Free Will, and Predestination (Review)

Adjustment BureauI just saw Matt Damon’s recent sleeper gem, The Adjustment Bureau (March 2011). Like a lot of other good speculative fiction and science fiction films, this one was based on yet another Philip K. Dick short story (“The Adjustment Team”), which first appeared in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954. The story is a fascinating take on predetermination, choice and free will, and how things might play out if there were indeed a “Divine Plan” – and someone chose to deviate from it.

Politician David Norris (Damon) stumbles into an encounter with men in suits and hats who are doing strange things to people he knows: they are “adjusting” his boss, nudging his thought processes so that his rational decision making will stick to “the Plan”. The Plan is the guidebook and blueprint, and these “adjusters” work for “the Chairman” (who humanity has “many names” for) to keep everything on track. They nudge here, alter an event there, so people do not stray too far from the path marked out for them. We glimpse the Plan now and then in the books the adjusters carry: it’s an intriguing image with moving dots and branching decision pathways, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s secret map, but unlike Potter’s map, it doesn’t just show where people are going, but where they are supposed to go.

The PlanAdjusters make sure that happens, even though we learn that at times the Chairman has rewritten the Plan, leaving odds and ends not necessarily reconciled – like the compulsion Norris has to be with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), a vestige of earlier Plans where they were indeed meant to be together. Their burning attraction and continuing efforts to connect are not something the Bureau can control; when random chance intrudes to help Norris find the mystery woman he is so drawn to, it turns out that chance, also, is a factor the adjusters are powerless over. But this version of the Plan holds different futures for them, and the Adjusters are here to make sure they don’t step off the path.

Norris’ “case agent” Harry (“Are you an angel?” Norris asks; “Some people call us that,” Harry admits) has rather more empathy for the politician’s situation than an adjuster is supposed to have. He tells him more than he probably ought to about what David Norris is up against, and ultimately helps him to evade other adjusters in an attempt to connect with his true love. The film presents a fascinating concept of a dimensional “substrate” that permits point to point movement in physical space: the notion makes for very entertaining chase scenes and provides a mechanic central to important plot points.

In the course of being pursued, David goes completely off book and takes actions that are no way predetermined in the Plan. What will the adjusters, and ultimately, the Chairman, do about it?

Well, now, if I say, that would be spoiling it. I suggest you see this for yourself if you want the full effect of manipulation, choice, and stepping outside the boundaries of the known. This ride is made even more enjoyable by the easy rapport between Blunt and Damon; there is a romance thread running throughout the story, and it remains an open question til the very end what the fate of this couple will be.

Notable Performances

Matt Damon as politician from blue-collar roots:  convincing. As romantic lead, very earnest, and clicks believably with Emily Blunt. Blunt plays a modern ballet-inspired dancer very well, and does good justice to the chemistry between Elise and David. Terence Stamp (“Thompson”) is the stern troubleshooter among the adjusters, and his presence is ominous in the way that being summoned before the principal is ominous.

Anthony Mackie as Harry Mitchell

Anthony Mackie as Harry Mitchell

Anthony Mackie (adjuster Harry Mitchell, Norris’ “case officer”) is a surprise discovery in this film: I’ve loved his brief appearances as Shawrelle Berry in Million Dollar Baby and as Nate Ruffin in We Are Marshall. Here he gets much more screen time, and comes across as sincere and multilayered even in spite of, or perhaps because of, his restrained performance as Norris’ adjuster. “Still waters run deep” with this one. He’s a pleasure to watch.

John Slattery

John Slattery

Last but not least, John Slattery of recent Mad Men fame shows up in the convservatively cut suit and hat that suits his lean frame so well. He is that meticulous mid-ranking functionary, a nice enough guy outside the office but a stickler for the rules, and therefore watching him creates unease because we’re never certain how far he will go to enforce the Plan.

One Sour Note

The bummer about this is not related to the movie itself, but to how Universal Pictures decided to release this on DVD. They’ve created a “rental” version DVD for the rental market that does not contain any of the bonus features listed on the disk. Try clicking on one (including the director voice-over track) and you get an annoying notice that says, “This disk was created for rental purposes. Buy a copy to get the bonus features included with the full disk” or something to that effect.

This caused me an extended period of ranting, continuing irritation as I write this, and a vow to never rent any disks of any movie that is packaged in this completely FUBAR manner if I can possibly determine this shortchanging in advance. Sure, they’re doing this to prod people to buy the move. Well, I hate to tell you, Universal marketing dweebs, but the only reason I rented your disk is for the bonus content. I always listen to the voice-over tracks, and routinely watch all the bonus features on the disk. If I am not going to get that value added info on a disk, I’ll stick with the (cheaper!) streaming version of movies that do not provide me access to this material in any case.

What a ripoff. Can someone please tell Universal and whoever else is taking this tack, that they are alienating customers and driving them straight into the hands of competing-streaming only products that, while also lacking supplement content, are at least cheaper to view? Idiots.

OK. /rant.

If you want the supplements, you’re SOL on this one. Still worth watching for the movie quality, but for the aforegoing reason I’d advise waiting for it to come out in a streaming format somewhere, or buying a used version of the movie when its been around for a while and is a lot cheaper. Used, not discounted new: take that, profiteering marketing jerks.


Lizard Lair’s “Dinosaur Stomp of Approval” Rating

Dinosaur stomps of approval 3.5

4 Stomps minus 1/2: Good stuff, - 1/2 stomp for gutting disk of supplemental content

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

Teramis On the Web

Alternate History Weekly Update - Guest Blogging

MilSciFi Interview - re "Live Fire" in No Man's Land

New Books

This military science fiction anthology contains "Live Fire," Christian's Tiptree Award-nominated short story set in the Sa'adani Empire, the setting of her science fiction novels. Now available at Amazon in print and Kindle editions.