Friday, 11 March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story (Adjustment Team) by science fiction master Philip K. Dick. A number of films have been based on Dick’s short stories and three of those films (Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly) are among my top 100 films of all time. I even found many things to like in the violent Schwarzenegger film Total Recall. This should bode well for The Adjustment Bureau. But if you have ever read Dick’s short stories and compared them to the films, you will know that identifying those films as based on one of Dick’s short stories does not mean the same as identifying a film as based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. This has never been more true than in the case of The Adjustment Bureau. Only the barest of ideas have found their way from the 23-page story to the film. Not one character in the film resembles a single character in the story. Hardly a word said in the film can be found anywhere in the story. And even the overall theme of The Adjustment Bureau, which is absolutely critical to how (and how much) one appreciates the film, is never more than hinted at in the story.

So The Adjustment Bureau is NOT Philip K. Dick’s story but a story by George Nolfi, who also directs the film. Nolfi is responsible for writing such mediocre film screenplays as The Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve (ouch!) and The Bourne Ultimatum. This would have been helpful knowledge for me prior to seeing The Adjustment Bureau. It would have appropriately lowered my expectations (though I think this is Nolfi’s best work to date).

Nevertheless, I must be honest and say I enjoyed the film in spite of my unwarranted expectations. I mean, let’s think about it: You have a sci-fi film (not really sci-fi at all but I won’t get into that) starring one of my favourite actors (Matt Damon) that not only has theological implications (as many films do) but is actually full of pure theology from beginning to end (very rare indeed). Theology, sci-fi, film and Matt Damon is a combination that cannot help but fascinate me, no matter how much better it could have been done (and it could have been done much better - the film’s screenplay is full of holes and inconsistencies, not to mention frequent problems with logic).

Before we examine the film’s flaws, let me say that the cinematography and score are both well done and Matt Damon’s understated performance is almost perfect for the role of David. Emily Blunt is also a very good choice for Elise. Indeed, the romantic element in this film worked very well for me because of the acting by the leads along with the sharply-written dialogue. Add theology to this mix and there is a lot to like about this film. But the theology is also the biggest flaw in the film. Unfortunately, to analyze that theology requires me to say much more about the film than you should know if you haven’t seen it and you know how much I hate doing that. On the other hand, what is the point of this blog if I can’t analyze one of the few popular theological films of our time? So this is where I warn readers to stop reading after this paragraph unless they don’t mind reading spoilers (and if you haven’t seen the film, you SHOULD mind, though that’s just my humble opinion). I do recommend that you go see The Adjustment Bureau. Based on the way it managed to captivate me in spite of its flaws, I am even going to give it ***+.

Okay, if you are still reading, I will assume you have already seen The Adjustment Bureau. I watched it with my daughter Katrina and her husband Paul. Paul enjoyed the film as much as I did (maybe more), but Katrina couldn’t stomach what she called the “dumbed down philosophy/theology”. I understand. The pop philosophy/theology offered in The Adjustment Bureau is infuriating at best. But I must make it clear again that I am so impressed that a popular film of our time even tried to deal with serious theological issues that I can’t help but applaud the effort. This film may not have offered logical profundity but it did make me think, and I love films that make me think.

So, as you know, The Adjustment Bureau is all about free will. At various points in history, God (called The Chairman) has experimented with giving humans free will, but always regretted it (Dark Ages, 20th century, etc.). As an alternative, God has developed The Plan, which may not have given us a perfect world, but at least we’re still here (as one of the Chairman’s agents (angels?) states). Deviations from The Plan require immediate adjustment by God’s agents to bring it back on course. Humans can make little choices, but when it comes to the big stuff, we have no free will at all. But what if one of us pesky humans just can’t take a hint, risking a ‘lobotomy’ to pursue the love of his life, a pursuit which puts a very critical piece of The Plan in jeopardy? Well, in the end (and I can talk about the end because you HAVE seen the film!!!), God is so impressed with David’s fight for free will that God changes The Plan accordingly and everyone lives happily ever after. One of the ‘angels’ even tells us that maybe God wants us to make more of an effort to step outside of the roles that have apparently been forced on us.

Lightweight theology to be sure, and full of inconsistencies (it is revealed to us that David’s determination to fight The Plan is based on his determination to stay with an earlier version of The Plan, so where is his free will in all of that? Answer: It ain’t there). But there are many thought-provoking ideas thrown in along the way. For example, God’s agents are not always sure that sticking with The Plan is right or that the adjustments they make to maintain The Plan are the best thing (one agent in particular is haunted by his past efforts). This presents a depiction of God as both a heartless and distant tyrant (The Chairman) even while there are hints that God visits us in various guises and is impressed when we fight against his/her wishes. A mixed message, but good for discussion. As is the way the film seems to suggest that free will is the greater good even while it questions humanity’s ability to handle it.

One idea I latched onto is the way angels are constantly making little adjustments to our lives to keep us on the straight and narrow. We trip over or drop something and miss a bus that would have led to a deviation from The Plan. This is a central theme in my own theological framework, though I come at it from a very different point of view. I believe not that God has a great and perfect plan for our lives and is constantly making little coincidental adjustments to keep us in line with that plan, but that God is constantly offering us little opportunities to follow a path that will ultimately be better for us and the world we live in. These opportunities can indeed come in the form of delays that cause us to miss a bus, but even the delay is only an opportunity, let alone what happens after the delay. If we fail to take advantage of the opportunities, as we frequently do, there will be countless other opportunities to follow the path of Jesus toward a fuller humanity. Always we are free to choose, even if we will ultimately be happier with a choice that stays closer to that path. If we had no free will, the choices and opportunities would be but a silly computer game and following the path would lead nowhere, because the very definition of humanity includes, for me, the necessity of free will. Some in the world will have far more choices and opportunities than others (and therefore also more responsibilities) but almost everyone, no matter what their situation in life, can exercise the free will to respond to the countless small opportunities God puts in our path each day. Well, that’s what I think anyway. But I would need at least fifty pages to expound on this to my satisfaction.

At this very moment, I am trying to decide whether to take advantage of an opportunity that suddenly fell into my lap. I have only minutes to decide. To take advantage of the opportunity might very well get me closer to the path I desire to follow. But what if, instead, it is a distraction from an even better path? This, my friends, is the joy of life for those who still believe there is a God of compassion who desires the best for each and every creature on our planet.

The Adjustment Bureau could have been a great film (as Ebert says). It wasn’t, but I think it will make a great discussion film for Christian groups (only one scene with bad language). Like I said, my mug is up anyway, with ***+.

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