Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Adjustment Bureau


Philip K. Dick was the Vincent van Gogh of science fiction. Vincent painted these weird things that no one understood, and never sold a canvas. Phil wrote these weird stories in pulp magazines no one read and books on trashy paperback racks and never had two dimes to rub together. Now Vincent’s works sell for 8 or 9 figures, and Phil’s novels and short stories (even “ideas!” See upcoming Nebulous) have made billions for Hollywood producers and stars. He also reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Kilgore Trout. He had these crazy ideas, and nobody listened to him.

Frankly, Dick was a not a great writer, in most senses of that term. He was prolific—you had to be, to make a living in those days—he really cranked them out, he didn’t have time, or maybe even the inclination, to polish. But he was way ahead of his time in exploring ideas that few in SF or outside it were tackling, but are now all the rage. He wasn’t interested in spaceships, or in gadgets, except in the story vehicle sense: This gadget does this because I say it does. His themes (among others) were paranoia, reality v. illusion, and free will v. predestination. All of them appear in this film.

It also imparts a valuable bit of information. How do you identify an alien who looks, on the surface, to be just like us? Easy. He’s wearing a hat. Usually a fedora, though we are told any hat will do, from a John Deere gimme to a yarmulke. (Are there Jewish aliens?) Actually, alien is too specific a term, as we never learn anything about where these “adjusters” come from or what they really are, except that they have advanced science and longer lives than we do. Maybe they are a superior Earthborn race, or enhanced human beings. We never know. What they look like are men in dark suits and ties and overcoats. One of them is black. Negro? Who can say? Something that bothered me at first was that the whatevers were all men. Upon reflection, though, the question arose … are they? Who knows what alien horrors lurks under those Fruit-of-the-Looms? Maybe they can shape-shift. If the circumstances call for it, maybe they can look female. Maybe they don’t have sexes at all. Maybe they have four sexes.

Well, that’s all irrelevant to the story, I just thought I’d mention it.

These people have a Plan, some large idea of guiding humanity. They say they stopped doing it twice, to see how we stupid humans handle real free will. What we came up with on our own was the Dark Ages, and all that unpleasantness associated with two World Wars. So they are benign … for the race. For individuals, not so much. If you are an Important Person, destined for Greater Things like the presidency (and Matt Damon, as an upcoming Senator, is such a one) and randomness enters their plan, like you suddenly meet a lovely woman dancer like Emily Blunt in the men’s room and, as they say, fall in love at first sight … well, then they will seriously fuck you up. Individuals aren’t allowed free will, not in the big decisions of life, anyway. They will engineer disasters, “accidents,” throw obstacles in your way and, if all else fails, wipe your brain. They can reprogram us in small ways, to forget things.

Can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Sounds good, unless you’re an egg and not all that into omelets.

It’s all pretty ingenious. They have a method of warping space so that they can go through certain doors and end up miles away, ahead of you physically and five steps ahead of you mentally. It is a thoughtful story on free will, and on ends and means, and also on the idea of a fascistic shadow group like those beloved of conspiracy theorists. It’s got Phil Dick’s fingerprints all over it. But what it mostly is is a romance, and that lifts it above the common crowd, for me. These two are immensely appealing people, and I hurt for them. Hell, we all yearn for star-crossed lovers, don’t we? And don’t they usually end badly? In this world, there is no room for stars to cross. The ending felt a little dishonest to me, but that was my only complaint … and hell, the sentimentalist in me was satisfied.