Movie Review: Philip K. Dick’s The Adjustment Bureau on DVD

Adjustment Bureau

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by Stefan Abrutat

There’s not much going on this week in science fiction cinema, so I’m going to have a look at a new DVD release instead.

The first impression I got from The Adjustment Bureau is the movie itself is trying to appeal to the same demographic as last year’s Inception: a high-concept sci-fi tale in a contemporary setting. Not an unachievable goal, when you consider the story is based on a tale by Philip K. Dick, the Hugo Award-winning mastermind behind such other sagas such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report.

Unfortunately he died before he achieved any personal success with his stories, but when you consider his legacy, that just plain sucks. He wrote in squalor, marrying four times and raising three kids. Despite cult success in science fiction magazines and with his 44 novels, his work was never accepted by the mainstream. When you consider he died at the age of 53 in 1982, the same year Ridley Scott’s take on his Blade Runner story came out, you can’t help but cringe at the pathos.

It’s difficult to imagine modern movie science fiction without Dick’s influence, which can be seen in just about every science fiction movie made today. The Matrix movies are a prime example, where the universe as we know it is a virtual reality simulation projected by real world self-aware machines and computers into our brains to provide a distraction while our inert bodies are harvested for the energy they need. This kind of woven duality is common in Dick’s work, and his influence is quite blatantly felt here and elsewhere.

Ben Affleck, who played Michael Jennings in John Woo’s 2003 movie Paycheck, based on the 1953 Dick short story, had this to say about the man:

“This is a part I went after really aggressively. I’ve always been a fan of Philip K. Dick, both his writings and the movie adaptations. They’re big-budget movies for smart people. There’s a tendency to dumb these movies down – they’re spending so much money on them, and conventional wisdom dictates that you have to go for the lowest common denominator. But his ideas prevent that. To anybody who’s ever thought, Did that happen or did I dream it? – you’d have to have a PhD in philosophy to get too deep into this, but it has to do with wanting to validate our own first-person experience.”

The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t quite capture the same vibrancy as Inception (another movie though not written by Dick, certainly has his legacy stamped all over it) The Matrix, or the recent Source Code. This is primarily because, I feel, it strips away a lot of Dick’s darker themes to focus on the bare bones of the story, which concerns the juxtapositions of free will, chance, and destiny.

The concept behind The Adjustment Bureau story is there’s a clandestine agency deployed to safeguard a divine plan by secretly and subtly manipulating the population of the planet with a nudge here and a trip there. Relationships are delicately encouraged or, in the case of US senate hopeful David Norris (Matt Damon) and ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), energetically hindered. This isn’t explained, only that it’s not supposed to be. However, chance intervenes and they do end up falling for each other as Norris becomes aware of the bureau’s existence, which ramps their operations into overdrive as they realize they’re letting things get away from them.

The DVD extras include a commentary track from screenwriter/director Geoff Nolfi as well as the usual deleted and extended scenes. Three featurettes, Becoming Elise, Leaping Through New York and Destined To Be describe the making of the film. Of particular interest is Becoming Elise, which tracks Emily Blunt’s pursuing of the role and her exhaustive training of the dance elements.

Pretty standard fare by today’s DVD standards, nothing particularly special, but well-polished and interesting nonetheless. Which is indicative, pretty much, of the movie itself.

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