Science and religion are strange bedfellows. Both look for truth, but go about it in very different ways. Fiction sometimes successfully combines the two to create an interesting way of seeing the world. George Lucas gave us “the force” in a futuristic setting. Carl Sagan, in Contact, explored the role of religion in science. Now, The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, presents a group of men in hats and suits that sort of look like the agents in The Matrix who make “adjustments” from time to time on behalf of the “chairman” to keep people on “plan.” The men do not admit to being angels, but say that humans have many names for them. We also know the “chairman” by many names—“God” being one, perhaps. We are not supposed to see these men, and we are not supposed to know about the plan. The film is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, “Adjustment Team,” originally published in 1954. Other films based on work by Philip K. Dick include Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report.
Possible spoilers abound in the following paragraphs, so read at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film.
David Norris (Damon) meets a young woman (Blunt) in the men’s room while rehearsing his concession speech as he is about to lose the election for the US Senate. The woman inspires him to give the speech of his life and renew his rise in the political arena. The meeting seems like chance, but turns out to be by design, part of the plan. Later, Norris runs into the woman again on a bus, but this time it’s chance, and one of the adjusters fell asleep before he could prevent Norris from catching that bus. The woman introduces herself as Elise and gives Norris her number. Norris then makes it to his office ten minutes too early, and he catches the adjusters at work. They inform him that he must forget what he saw, and he must forget the woman on the bus whom he was not supposed to ever see again. They take away her number, written on a card, and burn it. They also tell him that if he ever tells anyone about what he saw, his mind will be erased and he will spend the rest of his life in an institution.
Norris spends much of the story searching for Elise. He cannot remember the number, due to interference from the adjusters, and does not know Elise’s last name, but he is overwhelmed by his love for her. Elise feels it, too. One adjuster, the one who messed up, tells him that he will never find Elise, as “they” will not allow it. As the story builds, we learn that the adjusters have limits to their powers, and chance can sometimes overrule their authority. A discussion of free will that Norris has with a top ranking adjuster indicates that humans have free will when it comes to some things, less important things like what food to order at lunch. The important things in our lives, such as whether or not we rise to positions of greatness, are predetermined by the plan, written by the chairman. Even little things, like running into someone on a bus, can throw off the plan, especially if that person will alter the course of one’s life.
The question of predestination is an interesting one. Is free will just an illusion? Does a higher power already know where we are headed? Are we kept on a certain plan? The film toys with these questions in a sly manner. The chance meetings of Norris and Elise that frustrate the adjusters may in fact be part of the plan in an earlier form that keeps popping up, like a default setting in the memory of a computer hard drive. Norris and Elise were supposed to be together, and their separation was a way to drive each of them ahead in their careers, which fills the emptiness inside of them. If they come together, their career drive stops, as both feel fulfilled. Or not. The chairman, unlike God, is not infallible.
I am attracted to the idea that a simple thing like missing a bus could make the difference in having an opportunity that will change the path of one’s life. Sometimes, things have a way of working out in a certain way that helps us to move forward. We may in fact be on a pathway predetermined for us. On the other hand, we do make choices that also affect the course of our lives. I went to college and majored in English, and now I am an English teacher. If I never studied English, I would not have the job I have today. The chance meeting of Norris and Elise that throws off the plan may, all along, be the true plan. The adjuster who messed up, may not have messed up, but been following the true plan. The chairman may have been behind the mistake all along, adjusting the adjusters, keeping them on a higher plan.