Isqua Istari

The Wise Wizards

“The Adjustment Bureau”

Posted in Articles by Ziggy Monday August 22, 2011 at 16:38

Review Summary: Good craftsmanship. Bad message. Dumb characters.

Anna and I watched “The Adjustment Bureau” a few days ago. A number of friends had said it was “great” and “fun”, so expectations were high. By the end, we were both dissapointed, not only with the film, but with our friends. You know who you are! Feel ashamed of yourself.

Feel ashamed.

“Wait, what? That was a fun movie! It was great!” you may exclaim. Well, if you do, read below and I will explain how you too can destroy a “great fun” movie using your own latent mind powers. (Fun fact: The “thinking” trick works on books too. Try it at home kids!)

Plot Summary

This is a very one-sided summary, seen through the eyes of a cynical fanatic. There’s a lot of romance stuff and Hat Man stuff that I skipped. If you haven’t seen the show though, this should give you an inkling of what’s going on. For a more impassive summary, check out the “Storyline” section on IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1385826/ I’ve used false names below because I can’t be bothered to remember what the characters called each other.

As the show starts we meet Protagonist, the warm and flawless politician. He’s just been defeated on the eve of an election by a media smear and feels pretty down. He meets Protagonette, who chats him up. They banter breezily, share a kiss, and then she runs from security (no time to explain).

Protagonist bumps into her again on a bus, and the shadowy Hat Men (who we’ve been seeing from time to time) try to interfere. Proto-couple have a grand time being comfortably coy and he gets her number (and her goose). When Protagonist arrives at work,he stumbles upon, Shock! The Hat Men! Through some well scripted plot exposition we learn that the Hat Men are supernatural beings who keep everything going according to “The Plan”. It’s all very Illuminati-esque. They dish out the usual “Don’t tell anyone that we exist or we will kill you” and the expected “Don’t try to find Protagonette, you’re not meant to be together”. These Hat Men display supernatural powers to affect the world, and even people’s minds, and claim to be able to alter people’s thoughts. They quickly demonstrate their mind-altering powers, never to use them ever again for the rest of the movie.

Protagonist recovers from the shock fairly poorly. There’s more exposition by the sympathetic Black Man Hat. He essentially says “This is a metaphor of the struggle between God’s plan and free will. Also we’re angels, but we’re weak to water for some reason. Oh, and doors act like portals for us.” Okay whatever Sympathy Hat Dude. Three years later Protagonist is still trying to find Protagonette. The elections loom and his secret knowledge (presumably) gnaws at his fragile mind. They chance upon each other again, She invites him to see her dance, the Hat Men try to keep them apart, but fail. They sleep together and are apparently absolutely infatuated. We glimpse more important Hat Men who call in Special Hat Man to deal with the escalating problem of this budding romance which will aparently shatter their supernatural plan like a moose hitting your windshield when you’re looking at the scenery in Alaska instead of watching where you’re driving and now this sentence is way too long.

Special Hat Man explains to Protagonist that if he is “with” Protagonette, he will not win the election, and she will end up a dance teacher. If, however, he lets her go, then he will become the President of the US, and she will become a rich and famous dancer. Protagonist blusters something about “I love her” but we can’t understand what he’s talking about because at this point the movie is a tautological wreck. Protagonist wavers between abandoning her and persuing her, and finally decides that “The Plan” is the best option.

Then, weeks before the election, he sees that Protagonette will marry her old boyfriend. He knows that she must be miserable without him, and decides to rescue her from the impending marriage. With the help of Sympathetic Black Man Hat Dude he crashes the wedding, abducts Protagonette, and goes on a spectacular magic door chase though beautiful scenery. It’s all very symbolic when they stop at the Statue of Liberty and decide to confront the Top Hat Man on his own turf. After another chase scene through the Hat Man Building they end up on the roof, trapped by the Riot Shield Hat Men.

Finally, Black Man Hat informs Special Hat Man that Top Hat Man has changed the plan, and Proto-couple can now be together. Their “True Love” or whatever has mucked stuff up so much that it’s easier to change the plan than it is to fix it. There’s a voice over about free will and chasing your dreams, and the credits roll.

What Was Good

The movie craftsmanship was excellent overall. Good acting, writing, locations, editing, the works. The actors knew their roles, and sold it well. The dialog was believable and the foreshadowing was just enough to get you wondering without hinting too much. The shooting locations were beautiful, and it was fun to switch seamlessly between such different settings. You could always tell what was going on, even with the potentially disorienting supernatural powers and portal door hopping.

The story itself brought up a lot of important ideas. Central to the story are such questions as: Which is more important: emotion, or reason? To what extent do fate and personal choice govern our lives? If success and happiness are exclusive, which should you chose? How does one balance the often competing demands of risk and security? How do you balance the demands of a present known against an expected (or practically assured) future? I respect the writers of “The Adjustment Bureau” for approaching (if not really addressing) these very difficult issues.

What Was Bad

While I appreciate addressing the above issues, the answers given were just about the worst possible. At one point Black Man Hat says “People are designed to be led by emotion” which accurately sums up the films stance. The “mind vs heart” debate never happens, and the audience is continually expected to root for the proto-couple’s “romance” as they “follow their heart” in the face of the frankly prohibitive costs.

Instead of the promised pitting of “Fate vs Free Will” we end up with “Inflexibly Revised Business Plan vs Flighty Impulse”. “The Plan” which the Hat Men so often refer to is about as reliable as an Amtrak schedule; It’s constantly off, brittle as glass, and as binding as butter. In addition, people are purportedly given “free will” to chose the “little things”, but when they make “big decisions” it causes wars and chaos. Why people have any choices at all (in the face of the apparent human inability do do anything remotely beneficial) is never addressed.

Near the middle of the film, we learn that the Proto-pair was destined “in a former version of The Plan” to be together, and that the “echos” of this previous predestination is drawing them back together, in defiance of the current version of “The Plan”. This makes no sense at all, unless God is inept and impotent. Fate apparently has revision bugs. Maybe Fate is written on a whiteboard, and there’s that nasty dry-erase residue from the previous plan? There’s a spray that works great for that by the way. Maybe you should just start with a fresh piece of paper at the next “Fate” board meeting.

There is also a recurring phrase “That wasn’t us, that was just chance.” on the part of the Hat Men, which has interesting (but unaddressed) implications. If they are working for God, then there can be no “chance” and they would have to say “someone higher up did that.” Conversely, if they are not working for the Man who directs chance, then who is? Who is at the top of this organization, and who’s really in charge? Are these actually demons we’re seeing? Is it all a lie? These obvious questions are never raised by anyone, even though they threaten the entire conceptual framework which the film is built on.

Near the end of the movie, Protagonist is given a choice. You can be with the woman you “love” (ugh, more on that later), or you can both have your separate sucesses. This is a really powerful choice. If Protagonist has both of their best interests at heart, he will need to weigh their present feelings against the expected results of their future sucess. Perhaps they will be more happy apart than together. Protagonist doesn’t seem to be capable of thinking on this level though. All he sees is the bad man taking away his lady-toy. These issues of present and future happiness and sucess are never addressed. (At one point he asks “will she be happy?” but doesn’t get a straight answer, and assumes that she can be nothing but miserable without him.)

The authors of this film, like so many of their contemporaries, can conceive of no greater love than myopic infatuation. Neither of the Proto-pair can think beyond their apparently immense capacity for laser guided “love at first sight”. Nothing matters more to them than the total devotion born of a chance meeting in a public restroom. Neither of the main characters ever (with one exception) stop to ask themselves “Is this actually good for us?” The one exception is portrayed as the Protagonist’s lowest point; A grave error which he repents of and thereby lives happily ever after.

Even the emotion/love confusion pales compared to the ultimate evil, which I have saved for last. The ultimate victory appears when the hero and his damsel defy God’s clear will and are summarily given what they want. They are essentially told, “It was all a test! If you disobey enough, it proves you are worthy of free will. Good job rebelling!” This exact concept is pronounced by Satan’s servant in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. It boils down to “God wants you to disobey him.” and is the most subtle, wicked, perverting falsehood that Saint Clive could summon with his vast powers to demonstrate how to putrefy paradise. This teaching is absolutely evil, and in all ways false. I have no doubt that this movie has, at it’s core, a “moral” so inverse to right thinking that even Lewis would attribute its origin only to demons bent on puerile destruction.

EDIT: On further reflection, the central message can be further distilled to “God lies” which may indicate just who the makers of the movie view as their ultimate authority.

Okay, so besides the demonic falsehood, there are a number of parts that are just stupid.

What Was Just Dumb

The main character is a politician. His job is to discern who is powerful and how to please them. Then he is confronted with the Hat Men, who are… very powerful. They claim they can hand him the election! I don’t care how stupid Protagonist is, as a good politician, he is going to seize this golden opportunity! But nope, not once does he even ask them “How can I make you guys happy?” Just dumb.

The other main character is a girl. Near the end of the film she is assaulted in the bathroom moments before her wedding by a guy who slept with her and then abandoned her. She is understandably upset by this… but she gets over it in a few minutes because… I don’t know why actually. As far as I can tell she has brain damage of some sort. “Hey, I just attacked you in the bathroom and then did magic to whisk you away to where no one can defend you from me. Will you run away with me?” Sure, why not. Maybe she has fast acting Stockholm syndrome. Or she’s just dumb too.

The Hat Men have their flubs as well. They explicitly state and demonstrate early in the film that they can “adjust” a persons decision making patterns. This allows them to control people, more or less. Not one of them ever thinks to do this to Protagonist. The writers can’t do this, of course, because It would instantly resolve the movie and the audience would end up watching an hour of “Dances with Politicians”. Still, we’re left with nothing to think except that the Hat Men are incompetent to use their primary and most powerful tool. It’s even in the title of the movie! How many “Adjustments” are in “The Adjustment Bureau”? Exactly one. What is it used for? A non-critical environmentalist shoe-in which has nothing to do with the plot. So dumb.

I have to go on though because (as if it wasn’t enough) the Hat Men have other powers than re-programming people’s minds. They can change ordinary doors into portals. They can do telekinesis and stop time. Now, maybe they are bound by an incredibly obtuse code which we are never told about and they never mention but which keeps them from using these powers to stop proto-couple from hitching up. I just find it absolutely incredible that such beings would even notice a human’s will at all. That whole teams are unable to even stop mundane Protagonist from driving across the city is inexcusably dumb.

Moral of the Story

“The Adjustment Bureau” is a symphony of excellent craftsmanship carefully constructed around diabolical lies and insultingly moronic characters. And that’s how I became a lonely grumpy old man. Wait, what was I talking about? Did I ever tell you the story of the time I watched “Igor”? Now that was a REALLY bad movie! I remember watching the opening credits and… What’s that? You don’t have time to read another two thousand word essay? Wait! Come back! I have so much to say!


2 Comments »

  1. I liked “The Adjustment Bureau” but my expectations for it were incredibly low, and I’d already noticed the really dumb “follow your heart” angle from the trailer and kind of figured there wouldn’t be anything more to the movie than that. When there was (the craftsmanship you mentioned), I was surprised and delighted (though I don’t think I’d watch it again).

    Said by Jared 8/22/2011 at about 21:43

  2. I’ve noticed a few similar themes in recent (from the past decade or two) movies.

    Neo-paganism

    When I was first learning about Greco-Roman mythology, among the teachers’ favorite things to point out was the human-like error that the gods made. It seems like most of the problems in the old stories were either caused or substantially exacerbated by godly versions of the same problems had by their human supplicants: petty rivalries, adulteries, lies, and whatnot.

    IANA expert, but the conclusion I’ve drawn is that “god[s] in man’s image” is pretty typical of paganism. The pagan gods are just men (and women) with usual problems and unusual power.

    This has been very common in recent entertainment, too. To say nothing of children’s books that go right back to the old pagan gods, most direct treatment of the divine nature in modern stories has at it’s core one of two notions: neo-paganism, that god[s] exist[s], but are just as fallible as we are, and will change their minds just as (or perhaps more) readily than we will (as you describe above). The second is humanism, which is that any gods that may exist merely to facilitate humans to discover that “the real power” is in us, and show us that the best way to live is to leave them out of it (see “Bruce Almighty” for an easy, and even explicitly stated, example).

    Most entertainment, I’ve found, skirts the issue by getting at divine concepts indirectly, usually in the form of relationship to authority (s the family/coach/commander/government worthy of obedience?).

    Thoughtlessness

    I’ve also noticed this as endemic in modern entertainment. Characters frequently cause problems by stupidity, and often repeatedly. For example, Mollie and I have been watching “Alias”. In this series, all of the characters are spies, and “the good guys” are often ordered to conceal secrets from their associates in the interest of the mission. Now, they are all spies. They all know this is part of the job, and they have all said as much in as many words. Still, every time a character finds out that another has hidden something from them (even under orders or duress), they react in the worst possible way, translating “obeying orders” into “personal betrayal.” And when they are eventually forgiven, they still return the hostility when it happens to them, rather than learning from their own experiences on the other side of the hush conversation. The “Alias” series is replete with other problems that seem like they could be easily averted by about thirty seconds of thoughtful consideration or conversation.

    I have two theories for these two items. First, I think that entertainers know that stories with no message are boring. If no lesson is learned or knowledge imparted, the story is hollow and the audience knows it. The more accessible the message, though, the more money the item is apt to make. I suspect that most entertainment has messages purely for this reason, even if by their negligence they allow something more sinister to be communicated.

    Second, I think that entertainers have learned that the wider audiences do not want to think about their entertainment. Thus, most well-made movies are “a fun time”, where something predictable happens with carefully-measured pauses, glances, and musical strains aimed to trigger an appropriately pleasing emotional response. If a happy feeling in your gut and a conversation item for tomorrow are all the audience want, why spend the money on thoughtful, realistic problems?

    I ran across a “fun” article about “the worst natural disasters Hollywood’s ever sold.” It highlighted movies like Jaws, where the obvious solution is “stay out of the water”, and Volcano, where a marginally accurate portrayal of a volcanic eruption lacks for immediate tension (they point out that when you can walk faster than the threat, it is no threat at all) and covers it up with contrived reasons to force the characters close to the lava (“save the dog!”, and such).

    Hollywood, like an other industry, is in it for the money, and the best money comes from bulk sales and wide margins. They’ve found their target market, and sell to it well. And if they can popularize a message they espouse? All the better for them.

    Said by Toad 8/23/2011 at about 19:54

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