Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Watcher - The worlds of Philip K. Dick - The Adjustment Bureau

Adaptations of the stories of Sci-fi great Philip K. Dick are a mixed bag. For Every ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘A Scanner Darkly’, there’s always a ‘Screamers’ or ‘Impostor’ ready to befuddle even the most hardcore of fans. When ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ failed to set the box office alight, this directorial debut from screenwriter George Nolfi (Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum) slipped below my radar. Being a fan of Philip K. Dick, I knew I’d probably check it out eventually when it was on TV, but I could wait. And so today, on leaving the shop with a shiny new copy of Nicholas Cage ‘Drive Angry’, I realised I’d left my iPod behind. Five minutes later, I’m back at the car, complete with iPod, ‘Drive Angry’ and a copy of ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ tucked safely under my arm. Had fate intervened?

Based on Dick’s short story ‘Adjustment Team’, this adaptation takes a similar approach to 1990’s ‘Total Recall’ in that it takes the story’s basic concept and a few key scenes and fashions them into a more conventional narrative. ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ tells the story of how a blossoming romance between political hotshot David Norris (Matt Damon) and charming and elegant dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) is coldly thwarted at every turn by a cadre of sinister men in hats with uncanny powers, for reasons no one, not even they, can fully comprehend.

The genius concept of the Adjustment Bureau themselves, who ensure that humanity follows their ‘grand plan’ through a series of tiny adjustments (lost car keys, spilled coffee, missed bus, etc.) showcases one of Dick’s great strengths, imbuing the every day world with a powerful sense of the uncanny. By ejecting some of the more whimsical aspects of the source material, such as talking dogs and flying phone booths, George Nolfi has managed to pull off this trick on screen, as the first twenty minutes or so set up Norris and Elise’s story in a fairly conventional series of scenes, ordinary settings and performances that give no hint of the twists to come. It’s to the credit of all involved, not least the two leads, that I didn’t mind the slow pace of the opening one bit, so convincingly and engagingly is it played. Only a tinkling, echoey soundtrack manages to unsettle the mood, but in a clever rather than jarring way.

As noted above though, this is sci-fi played as romance and the mystery/thriller aspects are dialled down a fair bit. I was surprised how quickly the mystery of who exactly the Adjustment Bureau are was revealed, but in a way, this allows the viewer to stay engaged with Norris’s personal struggle rather than becoming distracted by endless head scratching. Perhaps understated is the best word, as the plot seamlessly integrates high concept visuals that echo everything from ‘The Matrix’ (1999) to ‘Inception’(2010), but uses them sparingly. In one key scene, lifted from the original story, we see Norris arrive at work and follow him all the way to his meeting without noticing anything at all amiss until the chilling realisation that the whole building is in the grip of dark forces from which there is seemingly no escape.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t help but root for Matt Damon, who brings passion and wit to a role many more action orientated actors would smother with one liners and testosterone and Emily Blunt might just convince anyone that there are some loves that are worth risking your soul for. As for the supporting players, the script requires that the members of the Adjustment Team maintain an emotional detachment to do their work, but this doesn’t stop Terrance Stamp from bringing all the quiet menace and cold intelligence he is famous for, or Anthony Mackie from almost stealing the film with his thoughtful, if underused Agent Harry Mitchell.

Overall, your enjoyment of this films might depend entirely what you bring with you. The packaging carries the ringing endorsement from Total Film that this is “BOURNE MEETS INCEPTION”, and curiously, such a claim either massively over or undersells this film. Whilst it is true that strands of both films’ DNA inform the look and feel of ‘The Adjustment Team’, for me, any comparison fails to pin down what makes this film unique. As the conclusion draws near, you are struck by the realisation that you have witnessed something rather bold and unique. A thriller without a single gun or gratuitous act of violence, and a love story that embraces cliché, before pulling the rug from under your feet, leaving you guessing to the very last moment.

Although only rated 12, this is perhaps a little too grown up to appeal to children, but it’s definitely both engaging and accessible enough to watch with a group of your best mates on a Friday night in. Don’t let fate decide; find this film, then sit back, relax, and do not adjust your set...

Robert Barton-Ancliffe adjusts himself every day. But then that's the joys of boxer shorts.

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