Adjustment Bureau, The (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: A,C+,B,A+=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 72 favorable, 6.6/10 average
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $120 million (62 U.S., 58 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: George Nolfi (His first film, although he wrote Bourne Ultimatum, Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve, and Timeline.), based on a short story by the amazing science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, whose stories or novels inspired the movies Blade Runner, Minority Report, Next, Total Recall, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Screamers, and Impostor.
Starring: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
With: Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, and Terrence Stamp, with cameos by Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Michael Bloomberg.

An aspiring politician discovers that both his career and his love life are of interest to a mysterious agency of super-powered men who intervene in the affairs of humanity, striving to keep events on track according to their plan.

Entertainment Value: A
If you tell me a movie is being made off of a Phillip K. Dick story, I’m in. They aren’t all perfect, but they’re all interesting, and some wind up as the best science fiction movies made. In this film, we have a brilliant idea, well-executed and even emotionally compelling from the very beginning. As good science fiction should, it asks a lot of fascinating questions and it gives us an alternate universe to contemplate our intuitions which jibes neither too well nor too poorly with the real one we live in.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language C+
The only real issue in this movie is profanity, which is consistent throughout the movie with all the minor and middle swears. There is one very brief, almost flippant F-variant, however, which probably pushed it up to PG-13 singlehandedly. There is one sexual scene with no nudity and a couple of minor violent scenes. This is a movie that isn’t right for younger children, but is fine for teens. PG-13 is probably right, which is too bad, because this could easily have been PG without the profanity.

Significant Content: B
The world is guided by an organization of benevolent totalitarians who work hard to remain hidden from view and prefer persuasion to coercion. The comparisons to God and Angels here are so obvious that the movie even acknowledges them, preferring to let us form our own opinions about the implications, however. The only reasons for not giving it an A are the ways in which God and the bureau so clearly diverge and also the movie’s truly troublesome contention that in romantic love we can be fully satisfied whereas Christians know that romantic love is a genuine good with equally genuine potential to be the most horrible of idols.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
Like all good science-fiction, the real value to a movie like this isn’t the plot or the “lessons” so much as the provocation to thought and discussion. And as you’ll see below, there’s no lack of things to mull over here. In style, this is really quite a light-hearted movie, certainly not the sinister and brooding feel of Dark City or even Blade runner, for instance. But it’s still a film-noir lite, at least judging by the 1930’s vintage suits and hats worn by bureau members, even though nobody smokes.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believe the bureau would actually erase his brain if he revealed their existence?
~What would be the point of keeping their existence a secret? Why is the illusion of free will so important to preserve? If you were “The Chairman,” would you want to keep your activities secret or make them more open?
~The hint is obviously dropped that these are the “real” explanation behind what people think of as angels or God. If that’s so, then what does it mean about the super-secrecy that they seem so bent on maintaining? Why do you think God and angels aren’t more open about their existence?
~Why aren’t there any evil bureau members or demons in this movie?
~In what ways are the bureau members like the angels of the Bible? In what ways is The Chairman like God? What do you make of the idea that the bureau only has limited manpower to control things? Does it seem weird that they have perfect predictive power but only limited influence? Does omniscience entail omnipotence?
~What devices does this movie employ to make us believe that the adjusters are sinister and that whatever they are doing is wrong? How does the movie get us to so powerfully sympathize with Norris?
~What is it about a secret or a cover-up or a conspiracy that infuriates us so much? Is this need to know a healthy or a dangerous compulsion?
~If you knew that your life was in fact being guided back “on plan” continuously by such beings, would it make you feel better or worse about reality?
~Soft determinism is the term people sometimes use for the idea that the “big events” in your life are fixed or fated but the “small events” are more open to shifting. A contrasting view is “hard determinism” where everything is fixed. Which view do you find more appealing, if at all? One ordinary component of hard determinism is the “butterfly effect” which postulates that everything has to be fixed because even the tiniest deviation can have potentially monumental significance. Which view do you think is correct? Do small events matter? Do they matter to God? What does the Bible tell us?
~One of the key doctrines of Christianity is the idea that God is Sovereign (King) over everything. Which view of human free will and determinism do you think is most Biblical?
~In what ways is “The Chairman” of a corporation a useful metaphor for God? A bad one? Consider in particular the disinterest in being worshipped or known which shows in the effort to remain a secret.
~Which sort of meaning or significance in life really matters: our devotion to other people in romantic love or our pursuit of achievement and fame such as through politics or dance excellence? Is romantic love just another form of self-gratification? What about devotion to the other person and their possibilities?
~What do you think about David’s decisions throughout the movie regarding Elise? Which of them do you think are virtuous? Which selfish? What is the “greater good?” How does the movie answer this question?
~Harry tells David that the reason they want to keep him and Elise apart is because she will so satisfy and fulfill him that he won’t need to pursue significance through acclaim and power. Is this movie right that romantic love can fully satisfy us in this way? What does the Bible teach us about this notion? Is the movie making romantic love into an idol? Is it a better idol than power or professional accomplishment?
~What would it mean about your identity and significance if you could not take or be held responsible for your choices because you did not actually make them?
~There is a dual theme in this movie that David and Elise are both driven together by fate and also by choice. Which is more significant? Do you believe people are fated to be together? Are they miserable when they don’t obey? What role does choice play in relationships? How important is the belief that spouses are fated to be together as opposed to “merely” chosen in making marriages work?
~Have you ever felt either thwarted by the universe or enabled by it beyond the bounds of what seems normal? How do you explain such things?
~What is the purpose of the grand plan of the Chairman and his bureau in this movie? Would you describe them as good or evil? Are they exploiting humanity or bringing out the best potential of mankind? How does the fact that they seem so reluctant to kill people or even to ruin their minds affect your judgment of them?
~In this movie, there are apparently different versions of “the plan” over time. Does that seem compatible with determinism to you? Does that seem to be compatible with the Bible to you?
~Why do you think Harry decides to help David? In what ways are their characters and dilemmas similar to each other?
~Because all movies are made within a cultural context, it is unavoidable that they might be seen as hinting at contemporary issues, even if they otherwise wouldn’t be understood this way. Do you think that the scene where David talks about not understanding why “they don’t want us to be together” except that it’s not part of “the plan” or doesn’t fit with “their book” are references to Christians opposing gay marriage?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first encounter with Elise.
~At the dance recital.
~At the statue of liberty.
~Atop the bureau building.

Overall Grade: A-
A wonderful film-noir-lite sci-fi action drama with all the religion, authority, and free will themes that dominate movies drawn from Phillip K. Dick fiction. Well worth watching and discussing.

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