Imagine a hipster fedora hat being a key to inter-spatial doors that let you crisscross through time and space. It sounds a little silly, but now imagine Anthony Mackie is wearing one, and he’s your guardian angel.
Superficially, we see this concept at play in a 2011 sci-fi movie, based on one of Philip K. Dick’s stories. Like Loki, Westworld, and countless other high concept science fiction tales, the movie’s premise explores how we don’t have free will in the way we think we do, positing that there’s always someone — in this case, wearing a fedora — who is moving your life in a direction that you didn’t choose.
A worthy if not totally faithful adaptation of Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Bureau is a beautiful and compelling film that makes a paranoid premise utterly relatable. Here’s why you should give this underrated soft sci-fi thriller another shot while it is streaming for free on Peacock.
Reading Philip K. Dick's books back-to-back will make you paranoid. You’ll either start believing everyone is a secret android, that someone falsely implanted your memories, or that shadowy figures are always trying to manipulate your life choices.
This is why in adaptations of Dick’s work, you tend to have heroic scenes of escape like at the end of Blade Runner or Total Recall. The world can’t possibly be this bleak, right? In Dick’s books and stories, the answer tends to be yes. As the literary forebearer to Black Mirror, the endings of Dick’s stories and novels are rarely as upbeat as the film versions, with the notable exceptions of the Amazon series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams and the excellent Richard Linklater film, A Scanner Darkly.
But, when Dick’s singular style of sci-fi gets made into Hollywood movies, there tends to be an element of hope and optimism that is almost always absent from the prose. This is true of The Adjustment Bureau in spades. Very loosely based on his short story “The Adjustment Team,” the film turns Dick’s tale of future manipulation and control into a political romantic comedy of sorts — and it works!
Calling The Adjustment Bureau a romantic comedy might seem odd. But the first two scenes see David (Matt Damon) accidentally meeting Elise (Emily Blunt), and there is no meet-cute cliché left behind. David and Elise fall in love so quickly it recalls the “insta-love” we’ve seen in movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Closer. You recognize the characters are in love because they are super-hilarious to each other in a way that seldom resembles real life. This can’t possibly have been by chance because real love doesn’t work that way, right?
The movie aims to explore this idea both ways. When we learn that a shadowy group of pseudo-angels is trying to keep humanity on a specific “plan,” we also learn that their plan has changed a few times. We find out that David and Elise were supposed to meet and flirt but not stay together. The notion is they were meant to be catalysts in each other’s lives, but not soulmates forever.
David is a super-young politician who loves solar energy. In the star-studded opening montage, he hob-nobs with real-life political figures like Mike Bloomberg and Madeleine Albright. Harry (Mackie) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) tell David that staying with Elise unravels the plan because neither will meet their true potential if they get married. It is kind of like if all-knowing beings intervened right before the third act of Romeo and Juliet: Listen, you zany kids, this is great and all, but it’s gonna end badly.
The strength of The Adjustment Bureau is how well it manages its stakes, while never relying on the butterfly effect and dire predictions. On Peacock, the description of the movie reads, “After glimpsing his future, ambitious politician battles against Fate itself to be with the woman he loves.” But this is incorrect.
David does not glimpse his future at any point in the film. He’s just told that the path he’s on contradicts the future that the Adjustment Bureau wants. The fact that this is vague is good because it keeps the focus on the characters, not the alternate timeline stuff. It’s kind of like a version of The Terminator in which Sarah Connor falls in love with Kyle Reese, but this time, Arnold is there to screw up their relationship and force Kyle to lose her phone number or something. The stakes in The Adjustment Bureau aren’t super-high, but they are for the people involved.
What sells the movie are the performances from Damon, Mackie, and Blunt. When David learns the truth, that his entire life is being manipulated by “the plan,” he’s told if he mentions this to anyone, that they’ll come and erase his brain. This threat works. If this were The Matrix, Matt Damon would be fighting back right away. But what’s cool about The Adjustment Bureau is how often the main characters fear the system that controls their lives. It’s a movie that isn’t remotely realistic with its sci-fi premise but still feels very real in how the characters respond to it.
When we reach the film's last act, it becomes somewhat strange, mainly because a few twists occur, and you’re not exactly sure of the rules anymore. We could blame screenwriter and director George Nolfi for some of the last-minute reveals and slightly rushed moments in the end, but that’s not entirely fair.
Philip K. Dick’s books and short stories are like that, too. The endings are almost always imperfect, and the conclusions challenge the reader. Good Philip K. Dick adaptations capture that imperfection, and The Adjustment Bureau honors his work by being thought-provoking, relatable, and messy in the best ways possible.
The Adjustment Bureau is streaming for free on Peacock.