As Matt Damon nervously looks around the streets of New York in The Adjustment Bureau, people around him are wearing hats. The hat is the indicator that one of “them” is on his trail, a group of human/non-human/angel-like beings who are there to tell him what to do, or at the very least control it. He’s lost free will, and at anytime, one of those people wearing a hat could send his own plans spiraling out of control.
And in New York, there are a lot of hats.
Adjustment Bureau is brilliant fiction, taken from a Phillip K. Dick short story and then expanded into this spectacular, nerve-racking, crowd cheering pleaser that does just about everything right. Director George Nolfi intentionally breaks the images up, ignoring the 180 degree rule, inserting beautiful cinematography, and keeping things moving. Unless Damon is with Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman he’s never supposed to see again, the camera and the action is kinetic. There’s almost always some type of motion to keep up with the frantic, desperate pace as Damon struggles to contemplate and understand.
The audience will too, but the film is quick to answer. It’s never specific or explicit in its explanations of who the Adjustment Bureau are, but they control us. They control us for our own good, a group that has let us rule over ourselves in the past, leading to World War, famine, and economic breakdown. The setting isn’t necessarily modern day, making you wonder if the current meltdowns are the direct cause of Damon’s feisty, romantically-driven acts against the Bureau. They realized we should be free, and we screwed each other. Thanks guys.
But, it’s a terrifying thought, which is why the material is so filled with intrigue. The romance works, established in a single bathroom conversation after Damon’s character lost a crucial election, and continues to light up the screen when they meet each other again. It takes a contrivance here and no matter how well sealed it is, a plot hole there to come together. Adjustment Bureau’s imperfections are mild though, the idea that someone controls us in such a manner just enough to keep the viewers head spinning as they consider all the possibilities. All of those thoughts alone are enough to patch this one up, filling in the blanks if you will, and realize how flawlessly this material translates to film.
Universal issues a VC-1 encode for the film, and rarely will you see something this inconsistent or lacking in basic precision. Adjustment Bureau doesn’t look awful. It comes with the usual modern trappings. At the forefront is a cool, heavily saturated orange/teal appearance, as unoriginal as they come, yet when color swells in the final frames, it appears the look served a purpose. Still doesn’t make it appealing, but at least it shows a thought process at work.
There’s plenty of fidelity tossed around too, certain close-ups striking in their definition. Aerials of New York are wonderful, Nolfi and cinematographer John Toll capturing a number of unique, truly individualized shots of skyscrapers and landmarks. Black levels prove refined and rich, although eliminate a significant portion of the shadow detail. The depth comes at a cost.
Even the grain, lightly scattered as it can be, is handled with care. A nominal selection of shots appear stifled by the encode, the grain turning into noise despite the generous bitrate. Everything else, well, it’s tricky. You’ll swear some of Adjustment Bureau was shot digitally, the opening zoom of Damon standing near a door shot on something that would be better served for some personal YouTube video. It won’t be the last, and yet this was captured entirely on film, or so say the technical specs.
More than a handful of shots appear muddy, no consistency between them either. Medium, long, or close, almost every scene will offer something that breaks down in a muddy, filtered, and processed appearance. They’re soft as a result too, the razor-like sharpness elsewhere not matching up or even existing in the same ballpark. It becomes a shift in clarity that is almost comical, enough that it can pull the discerning videophile right out of the film, and dilute the impactful photography. It’s a shame, especially since the film deserved better.
Audio design is standard for a thriller generally devoid of action. There are brief flashes, a harsh, high-speed car accident providing a burst of shattering glass, thud in the low-end, and some mild surround use. Music pushes itself into the rears when it begins to amp up, the final chase scene as Damon and Blunt take to the streets is full of vigor and aggressiveness. There is a club sequence earlier that begins to dominate the subwoofer, enough to take notice if not becoming a defining moment for the format.
Dialogue sticks to the center, as basic as it comes. Amplified for political speeches, Damon’s voice will carry overhead with some effectiveness, but with the way the Bureau can creep up out of nowhere, it’s a shame the channels aren’t used for a bit of positioning.
A commentary lets director George Nolfi chat about his work alone, while some deleted scenes come up in the que next. Leaping Through New York details the location shoot, Destined to Be another featurette, this one focusing on Damon’s role. Becoming Elise details Blunt’s training as a dancer. The Labyrinth of Doors is a collection of behind-the-scenes bits about specific locations, but clunky and slow to load. The presentation is completely unnecessary. D-Box and BD-Live support are left if you’re interested (and spent a crap ton on a movie-viewing chair).