Monday, 11 July 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Lowdown: Two passionate lovers fight a group of mysterious men in hats that work to separate them.
It has been a while since I have last seen me a good, high quality science fiction film. Last year we had several (District 9, Avatar & Moon); this year, up to this last weekend, none.
That long established desperation that built itself up over the year let go immediately as my PS3 started playing The Adjustment Bureau’s Blu-ray. Clearly, this was something special: this was the end of that long drought.
Based on yet another Phillip K. Dick story (which I either didn’t read or don’t remember), The Adjustment Bureau has us following a young but promising New York politician coming from a rough neighborhood background, David Norris (Matt Damon). We join David as he is about to lose an election which he was leading promisingly up to a point where a shameful photo of his was published by the media.
Securing himself in the men’s toilet to work on his defeat speech, he stumbles upon the hiding Elise (Emily Blunt). The circumstances work, something clicks between the two, and David goes on to make the speech of a lifetime that sets the stage up for his political comeback.
Shortly after that, David randomly bumps into Elise while taking the bus. They continue from where they left before, and this time he also gets her number. Quickly after that David learns, through a chain of mysterious events, that there are a bunch of people wearing suits and hats whose job it is to ensure he never gets together with Elise. Can the spark between the man and the woman be enough to overcome these mysterious people? Who are they in the first place, and what is it that they want?
What follows is a thrilling science fiction drama where our heroes, as attracted as they are to one another, have to climb up insurmountable obstacles in order to be together. In the process of the thrill we get to have an interesting discussion on matters of free will vs. fatalism.
There are several reasons for why I consider The Adjustment Bureau to be a top notch film. First is the acting: Damon may be a bit too muscly for the role, but the chemistry between Blunt and him is undeniable. It is Blunt whom I would label as the one who makes the film work, because through her acting I got to truly feel the pain of the constantly and forcibly separated lovers. I wholeheartedly identified with the sacrifices the heroes had to make; after all, in my personal life I have the privilege of partnering a woman who came from the opposite side of the world just to be with me, so I can detect dedication to love when I see it.
By the way, Terence Stamp as a particularly cool under fire baddie agent, not too dissimilar to the famous Agent Smith, doesn’t do a bad acting job either. Looks like the role of the ubiquitous gray clothed government agent is best fulfilled by the folk of the Southern Pacific.
The way The Adjustment Bureau delivers its story is the second good thing that works in its favor. The presentation is very polished, with terrific cinematography by John Toll, surely one of the best in the business. There is more to the presentation than the cinematography, though: although this is clearly a science fiction film, there are no special effects shots to talk about. Instead, the film relies on plenty of location shooting, including many New York landmarks that must have been hard to secure (Yankee Stadium, Museum of Modern Arts, and of course – The Statue of Liberty). We also have plenty of cameos from media celebrities and politicians playing themselves.
Surely, special effects are everywhere in various forms, including CGI; but these are not in your face, and even when fantastic things happen they take place in ordinary fashion. That fashion might not attract blockbuster status at the cinemas, but they make the film feel that much more realistic: it makes The Adjustment Bureau a film about ordinary people going through a struggle rather than a film about some weird fantasy. It puts the philosophy at the center of the viewer’s attention rather than the effects.
The philosophy itself is discussed only at the pop level. I find that a bit sad, although understandable: The Adjustment Bureau is an action film, not a documentary. I will still complain, though, on how the concept of “the illusion of free will” is put on board but left undiscussed. It appears society is still not ready to discuss a matter that could put our whole justice system under the question mark and challenge the social mechanisms we all take for granted.
The story, the acting and the presentation combine to bring us something special. The Adjustment Bureau demonstrates what science fiction at its best can be: a film utilizing fantastic elements in a way that does not attract too much attention to these elements with the purpose of making a fine point about us, living in this present real life world.
Best scene: David leaves Elise behind, injured at a hospital, believing he is acting at her best interest. The acting and the way the scene is set up worked to tear my heart up; at the personal level it reminded me of each time I left family members or friends at the hospital so I could get on with my mundane life.
Technical assessment: A fine but not a stellar presentation from this Blu-ray. I do have to say that having not watched a Blu-ray for a few weeks, I was once again surprised – in the most pleasant of ways – to recall just how nice and soft on the ear Blu-ray quality soundtracks are.
Overall: It is a true pleasure to see a film so well made. 5 out of 5 stars.


Wicked Little Critta said...

Well, I guess I'll have to see it. I avoided it because it was made out to be a film with religious overtones in the Christian circles I'm familiar with. Guess I should give it a chance!

Moshe Reuveni said...

I can see how the film can be interpreted for having religious motifs. In my view, the film has them but also says that religious fatalism is redundant... I guess it's something that can be interpreted each way you want.
Sorry for the ambiguity of my reply - I'm trying to avoid spoilage.

For the record, Lord of the Rings has religious motifs and I still think it's a great trilogy...
I just have a soft belly for science fiction and fantasy.

Wicked Little Critta said...

So, we saw it...unfortunately I didn't think as highly of it as you did. I agree about the acting and the chemistry, but for me that was all the movie had to offer. The idea of the adjustment bureau was kind of interesting, but didn't really intrigue me very much. And I thought the bureau men themselves weren't anything special. They felt, to me, like a poorer, cheaper version of the agents from The Matrix.

To each his/her own! Glad you enjoyed it.

Moshe Reuveni said...

True. I'm still amazed at the fact someone spent hours of their lives doing something simply because I recommended it here. Hope you didn't want to kill me for wasting your time...
For the record, I do have a soft spot for science fiction, and I also have a soft spot for discussions on the matter of the illusion of free will. The latter is to do with the predominant approach our culture has towards free will, which is quite in contrast to what science tells us. I am waiting for the day a brave legislator would open the Pandora box by asking whether the accused can be charged with anything given the accused does not really have free will?
Anyway. There are a lot of similarities with Matrix, but I see two main differences: there are no action scenes (in the sense of shooting), and there are no obvious special effects. This makes the film more of a philosophical discussion than the boys with toys attitude of Matrix.