Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau
Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau

Sci-fi movies have been around almost as long as the cinema itself—historians invariably cite George Melies’s fanciful short A Trip to the Moon (1902) as one of the early motion picture landmarks—yet the two films that set the polarities for the genre arrived less than a decade apart. With its dazzling inquiry into the nature of human intelligence, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) remains the high-water mark for cerebral, conceptual, even metaphysical sci-fi. Nine years later, George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) became the top-grossing movie of all time and conclusively tilted the genre toward action and adventure (not to mention merchandising). To this day, sci-fi movie makers reckon with the artistic success of the first movie and the commercial success of the second.

The Star Wars model has so dominated the marketplace for the past 34 years that whenever a serious, idea-driven sci-fi movie comes along—Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009)—it’s inevitably hailed as a “welcome return” to the tradition of 2001. But more recently, Hollywood filmakers have taken a few stabs at reconciling these two extremes, with movies that consider great metaphysical questions even as they deliver the requisite suspense and thrills. The problem is that questioning the nature of reality or human perception often conflicts with the plot mechanics of a good popcorn movie. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, with its convoluted story logic about the manipulation of dreams, was a good example; another is George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, in which a New York politician discovers that the world is monitored by a secret organization of gray gentlemen who revise people’s lives in order to keep human history on track.

The Adjustment Bureau is based on an early story by Philip K. Dick, whose fiction has already inspired such movies as Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002). Published in 1954, “Adjustment Team” is a paranoid little masterpiece about an urban office drone who accidentally glimpses the hidden levers of existence. It opens with a character called the Clerk instructing a character called the Summonerin reality, the hero’s dog—to bark at exactly 8:15 AM, which will get the hero out of the house and into his workplace on time. Because the dog falls asleep, though, the man is late for work, and he stumbles into a waking nightmare: his office building and all its occupants have been “de-energized” by a team of men in white coats, and when he tries to touch his coworkers they collapse into piles of ash. After fleeing in horror, he returns that afternoon to find that everything has returned to normal, except that people and objects are subtly different from how he remembers them.

Word of this must not spread, so the hero is transported into a celestial chamber where an old man sits before a giant map called the Sector Board. For centuries the old man and his staff have been minutely adjusting everyday events to prevent humanity from going off the rails. The nightmare earlier in the day was one such adjustment: as the hero learns, his boss needed to be turned into a younger, more ambitious man so that he would purchase some forest land in western Canada for development, so that anthropological remains would be discovered there, so that an international team of scientists would be convened to investigate them, so that two of the scientists would become friends, so that, ultimately, world peace would be realized. But because the hero’s dog dozed off that morning the hero has witnessed the adjustment, and the fate of the planet will be compromised unless he keeps his mouth shut.

Read all these years later, “Adjustment Team” works not only as a crackerjack sci-fi tale and a mind-boggling lesson in causality but also as a tongue-in-cheek satire of 50s conformity. The hero may seem like a corporate cog, hustling to work and chafing against the restraints of office culture, but in fact he holds the fate of the world in his hands. Forty years ago, when the spell of 2001 still held sway over sci-fi moviemakers, someone might have turned “Adjustment Team” into a moody psychodrama that honored Dick’s sweeping paranoia and delusions of grandeur. But in the post-Star Wars era, science fiction has become largely synonymous with action filmmaking, and “Adjustment Team” has been brought to the big screen as a Matt Damon thriller. Nolfi, who makes his debut here as writer and director, was one of the screenwriters for The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and, not coincidentally, the last quarter of The Adjustment Bureau degenerates into a frantic foot chase straight out of that money-minting spy franchise.

To his credit, Nolfi has invested a good deal of wit and intelligence in turning a relatively slight short story—”Adjustment Team” would have worked easily as a Twilight Zone episode—into a full-length feature. His most interesting spin on the material is turning Dick’s ordinary man into an extraordinary one: instead of a harried white-collar worker, Damon plays David Norris, a young and charismatic congressman who’s running for the U.S. Senate. Norris loses to the incumbent, but as he’s preparing to give his concession speech, a chance encounter with the beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt) inspires him to go off his text and confess on TV how scripted his campaign was, which wows the nation and sets him up for greater things in the future. He’s the kind of man who creates his own opportunities, who steers events rather than being steered by them, which makes the sudden crumbling of perceived reality even more potent.

Unfortunately, this premise is the sort of thing that raises more questions than can possibly be answered, which may be the reason Dick confined it to a short story. To sustain a full-length feature, Nolfi has created a conflict between Norris’s romance with Elise and the future mapped out for him by the adjustment bureau. Warm, quick, and perceptive, she’s the girl of his dreams, but as Norris eventually learns from the dapper cosmic bureaucrats (who are almost as prone to spoilers as I am), her love will satisfy him enough to quell his political ambitions, which will prevent him from becoming president of the United States, which will keep him from saving the world. Given the bureau’s endless maneuvering to separate the lovers, you have to wonder why they can’t just doctor Norris’s memory as they do everyone else’s, or open a manhole in front of Elise as she’s walking down the street.

The idea of a perfect love that can’t be allowed to bloom keeps The Adjustment Bureau aloft for much of its running time, but the movie turns incoherent once Nolfi bows to the commercial requirements of an action-packed climax and a happy ending. Suffering from an attack of conscience, the adjuster who’s been monitoring Norris (Anthony Mackie) tells him how to circumvent the bureau and make his case directly to the godlike Chairman, which involves dashing through a series of doors while covering one’s head at all times and turning the door handles counterclockwise (got that?). With Elise in tow, Norris bursts through one door after another, crossing magically from a city courthouse to Yankee Stadium to Sixth Avenue to the Statue of Liberty as the adjusters follow in hot pursuit. This baffling chase scene ends on the roof of a skyscraper, where the lovers learn that the Chairman has revised his master plan and blessed their union after all. The whole ordeal, we learn, was only a test. This leads us to the final unanswerable question: why are we watching this, exactly?