Do humans really have free will? It certainly seems like we do. But, given the right conditions, science can accurately predict the behavior of atoms. And aren’t our bodies just a giant cluster of billions of atoms? So, it should be possible, theoretically, to consistently predict human behavior, thus rendering our freedom to choose a mere illusion.
Philosophers have wrestled with variations of this problem for centuries. Philosophies like incompatibilism, dualism, hard determinism and compatibilism have arisen to explain the nature of our autonomy, or lack thereof.
“The Adjustment Bureau,” George Nolfi’s loose adaptation of an early Philip K. Dick story, removes the internal struggle altogether and places control of human behavior in the hands of other, more advanced beings tasked with saving humans from our own stupidity and irrationality.
This makes for an interesting view of the age old debate. The film shifts the question away from the biological and metaphysical and toward the moral. In effect, humans don’t have free will because they haven’t earned it yet. It’s a fascinating paradox, to be sure, and one that makes for good post-viewing conversation.
But the philosophical and science fiction elements of the film are mere garnishing on the plate of the real meat — an old fashioned love story.
David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young, trending politician known for his energy and authenticity. After losing his bid for a US Senate seat he has a chance meeting with Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful, charismatic ballerina. They fall for each other instantly, almost as if it was meant to be.
Unfortunately for David and Elise, a longterm relationship is not in “the plan” for them. So members of the mysterious bureau, dressed like hardboiled 1940s film noir detectives, make slight alterations of reality and tweak their reasoning processes just enough to keep them apart. You see, everything must go according to “the plan.” Whose plan? The Chairman’s plan. He’s the big boss, the guy (literally) upstairs. God is never mentioned in the film, and the tone is decidedly non-religious, but the metaphors are obvious.
After David repeatedly refuses to follow “the plan” he is given a choice. If he continues to pursue Elise he’ll ruin her chance to become one of the world’s greatest choreographers. And he’ll also destroy his own path to the White House. If he truly loves her, the bureau says, he’ll let her go so they can both live out their dreams according to “the plan.” I won’t reveal his decision here, but the film’s tone gives away the ending from the beginning.
At its core, “The Adjustment Bureau” is a breezy, optimistic romance. The film’s only real philosophy is that love conquers all. Take that however you like.