Your Review has Been Adjusted

Published on March 15th, 2011

Alex writes about Battle: LA and what The Adjustment Bureau says about modern film criticism.

SPOILER ALERT: There are slight spoilers for the Adjustment Bureau in this article – however, those spoilers are entirely thematic in nature and are well noted before you get to them. No plot points are discussed, but the general ideas of the movie are.

I’m probably not the right person to suggest a movie for you to go see. I may see almost everything, but I get an accurate perspective on almost nothing. I realize that sentence is hopelessly vague, but I’ve got a pretty good way to explain it… I think. You can be the judge.

There are two types of science-fiction movies: those that focus more on spectacle, action and creatures, and those that are based on exploring an idea that affects us. Think Star Wars versus Blade Runner. Star Wars is, for the most part, a straight-forward action movie, whereas Blade Runner uses the guise of heavily-stylized science-fiction and noir to ask what makes us human. Luke Skywalker’s battle is a physical struggle between clear-cut good and bad entities; Rick Deckard’s conflict is mostly psychological and filled with ambiguity. Neither type of movie is necessarily better than the other, and a combination of these types of sci-fi is typically the most potent – and is also why the Matrix is probably one of the best movies made since I was born – but the split is typically simple and can divide moviegoers and critics alike. Neither is necessarily a better way to make a movie, merely a different way to shape its theme. Some people prefer one kind of science-fiction, some prefer the other. Some don’t give a shit. Some overthink the difference and write overlong blog posts about it.

The last couple weeks have seen two new science-fiction movies opening to wide releases, The Adjustment Bureau and Battle: Los Angeles, each offering viewers something completely different. The Adjustment Bureau is more along the lines of the Blade Runner brand of sci-fi, while Battle: LA focuses more on Aaron Eckhart’s jawline and good ol’ fashioned alien killing. Both critics and audiences seem to be divided on the two movies: the Adjustment Bureau’s ‘Top Critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes is listed at merely 60%, and while Battle: LA is at a paltry 22%, it still seems to have many critics willing to defend it, albeit always under the knowledge that it is a simple film. Walking out of Battle: LA, the audience seemed pretty pleased with what they had seen, whereas the Adjustment Bureau seemed to polarize its audience.

I suppose I should give brief reviews of these movies, right? That makes sense, probably. Battle: LA was fairly entertaining. Aaron Eckhart and Ramon Ramirez did their best to sell the movie to the audience by taking it all extremely seriously, and that strategy worked well enough for me. I found it to be an entertaining collaboration of a war movie, an alien invasion movie, and the cinema verite style used in the Bourne trilogy and Friday Night Lights. A couple of the action set pieces were pretty fucking intense, and the parts that weren’t were still good enough to keep me entertained.

The Adjustment Bureau, by contrast, was a much more patient movie that oscillated between romance and science-fiction. I thought Matt Damon and Emily Blunt were the most engaging cinematic couple since Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of the movie. And that is the key: Battle: LA didn’t really have an idea, it was just really entertaining. The Adjustment Bureau has kept me thinking about it for the past week.

I shouldn’t say that Battle: LA didn’t have an idea behind it. That’s a lie. It puts you on the ground level of an alien invasion, and presumably shows you how Marines would react to this, if said Marines are near perfect at killing aliens. But that is not at all an idea rooted in any sort of reality that I can relate to. I’m confident that aliens will never attack earth, and if they did, I’m pretty sure Superman would step in to stop them much quicker than the Marines do here. However, the Adjustment Bureau exists in a world I recognize. It takes place in the present, and while I clearly don’t believe the Adjustment Bureau itself actually exists, if the events in the movie were to really take place it is conceivable that we would simply never know about it. That is the type of science-fiction I tend to gravitate to the most; of course, I typically need to be able to recognize the scenery around the seemingly impossible plot to do so.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE

The Adjustment Bureau essentially asks you one question: what would you do if you were told that fate existed, and that there was nothing significant that you could do in your life that was truly autonomous? Damon’s character is told that he will get to make small decisions on his own, such as what drink to have with his lunch, but anything of actual consequence is revealed to be pre-determined. His career and romantic endeavours have been pre-determined, no matter what he does. Regardless of how you feel about the concept of fate, that is an interesting question to ask a viewer. Movies like this always require a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, but when the idea is good enough, I’m more than willing to give in. If you have seen the trailer, you know that Damon’s character tries to fight against fate, and that ends up bringing up a variety of other questions. An implicit aspect of the plot is whether or not the idea of “the One” actually exists (and not the shitty Jet Li movie – that unfortunately does exist – I’m talking about the One that Ted Mosby believes in), not to mention the series of questions the Adjustment Bureau itself bring to the table.

In the movie, Damon plays politician David Norris, a man who is well-liked by his constituency and seems poised for a good career past his run for a Senate seat. When the Bureau tells him that his political career depends on his staying away from Elise (Blunt), he responds by… well, not staying away. He fights against his fate, and that is what drives the movie. Elise is a dancer and choreographer who, we are told, will be extremely successful if she and David do not engage in a romantic relationship. The Bureau, as the controllers of everybody’s fate, is not-so-subtly suggested to be headed by God but referred to as the Chairman. By choosing a politician and an artist as our protagonists, the movie is suggesting even more interesting ideas to us. David is sold to the voters as an authentic candidate, and is often called the “GQ candidate” due to his comparative youth, but even he acknowledges that this is not entirely true. Early in the film, he gives a wildly popular concession speech railing against his so-called authenticity, going on an unscripted rant about how he is told by his team that his shoes must always be slightly scuffed and he must always wear a red or blue tie in order to not alienate voters. While he has already lost this election, David is suddenly the early favourite for the next election due to this act of improvisation. But in making this speech, David (and by extension the movie) is suggesting that our politicians are such highly-contrived entities that we don’t have any real selection. He suggests that our votes do indeed count in that we are making a choice, but that choice doesn’t mean much more than our choice of drinking Coke or Pepsi: we are still choosing a highly-influenced entity as opposed to a real person. The Adjustment Bureau is certainly not trying expose some Alex Jones-style conspiracy, but the larger themes of questioning authourity and democracy are present.

Elise’s dancing career isn’t the focus of the film either, but that the Bureau also controls the fate of her career is a suggestion about all successful art. In order for one’s art to reach a high number of people, with few exceptions, it needs to have the support of a company that can profit from it. This can easily be applied to the film the Adjustment Bureau, as test screenings showed that audiences hated the original ending of the movie, so the studio commanded reshoots (in their defence though, the original ending sounds fucking terrible). In order for this movie to be made, writer/director George Nolfi and his crew had to make changes to appease their version of the Adjustment Bureau. Nolfi and company had an element of control over their work, but the ultimate control came from the Chairman; this movie needed to be able to make money. Should Elise not appease the Bureau and remain romantically involved with David, or if Nolfi truly stuck to his original ending, they would not be able to reach the level of wide-ranging success that they are looking for.

Without getting too much into its problems, the Adjustment Bureau is far from a perfect movie. Even the new ending is not particularly good, and the dialogue of everybody involved with the Bureau is almost universally shitty, but like I said earlier, I am willing to let a lot go for an interesting idea. It is certainly the most interesting and engaging movie I have seen so far this year, and I’ll probably see it again. Although, I might see Battle: LA again as well. But none of that should really matter to you.

SPOILERS END HERE

I am always more interested in an audience’s reaction to a film than that of a professional movie critic. Early on in high school, I started to realize that reading movie reviews in the newspaper every Friday would not only affect which movies I would go see, but these reviews would actively shape how I felt about a movie before I even saw it. This lead to me avoiding reviews almost entirely, and whenever I find myself interested in them now, it’s always after I have seen the movie in question. While I touched on this in my article about the mass perception of Inception, the point bears repeating: as far as their movie reviews go, film critics are mostly worthless to me. Movies are a completely subjective thing; Roger Ebert’s opinion of Battle: LA means no more to me than your opinion. He really hates it, but I will never be in a position to argue anything about it with him, like I could conceivably be with you. Popular film critics rarely do any real criticism anymore, and this has been true for a long time. Instead of writing about why the ideas within the Adjustment Bureau are interesting, critics will focus more on the chemistry between Damon and Blunt, or the cinematography, or Terrence Stamp’s Terrence Stamp-iness. I care about those things, sure, but I can judge how I feel about them myself; I don’t need to be told what to look for. I realize that writing this in what probably reads like a review of the Adjustment Bureau is wildly contradictory, but my defence is that anybody reading this is unlikely to be particularly excited about the movie in question.

Hollywood movies are probably the most dominant form of pop culture that we can collectively discuss. What bothers me about discussing movies is that too many people seem concerned with the popular opinion of a movie. People might not let themselves like a movie they’re told they’re not supposed to like, even though Battle: LA might actually be really enjoyable in a way that typically doesn’t appeal to critics. Too often I find that people will appear to adjust their reviews of a merely good movie to correspond with the overzealous critical opinion. I’m not saying that everybody’s opinion should correspond with mine; I am only saying that everybody’s opinion should be their own.

While some popular critics still engage with the ideas of a movie in their reviews, even then it is typically only done briefly before the movie is assigned a star rating. And while there is normally far more in-depth writing on film to be found on the internet than in popular publications, a much smaller number of people will actually find it. Whether or not people actually read reviews by Ebert or A.O. Scott is beside the point: reviewers as a whole create the popular view of a movie that quickly gets adopted by the masses, whether it is directed at an alien invasion movie or a science-fiction/romance hybrid. This collective review then becomes the talking point of a conversation about any Hollywood film, and limits the level of depth any movie discussion can get into before you get called a pretentious douchebag. The average person is smarter than most people think, it just so happens that we are also easily swayed by the pervasiveness of popular opinion.

I don’t want my voice to be the dominant one in film criticism or anything: popular critics are far better writers than me. I don’t doubt that they think much bigger, smarter thoughts than the ones I’m putting forth here. But the problem is that until they start writing these things in their reviews, almost all conversation on movies will come back to how good the movie in question is compared to other movies.

It is possible that critics look at their job as a sort of writing version of the video game Lemmings. They are playing the game, and they think we will go over the cliff if they don’t stop us with their prose. They’ll give us the easiest path to the destination, in order to save many of us from watching movies that they don’t like. What most critics fail to realize, however, is that we’re smarter than that. We don’t need to follow the easiest path out there; we’re willing to think a little bit more. We may go in the direction they suggest to us anyway, but we’re more than willing to take a more inventive and fun path to get there. Until that happens though, most conversations on popular film will remain simple and pre-determined.

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