Tuesday, March 8, 2011

City on the Edge of Forever and The Adjustment Bureau

City on the Edge of Forever, Harlan Ellison's brilliant Star Trek screenplay, is a love story that also examines the themes of destiny, time travel and self sacrifice. After Dr. McCoy experiences an accidental drug overdose, he flees the Starship Enterprise and ends up going through a portal that transports him back in time. As a result of something that happens during his time travel, the Enterprise--and all members of her crew that are not in the immediate presence of the "Guardian of Forever" (the name of the time travel portal)--disappears. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, aided by tricorder readings that Mr. Spock made, jump into the portal to try to reverse whatever Dr. McCoy did. Kirk, Spock and McCoy all arrived at the same time and place (New York City during the Great Depression) but Kirk and Spock are not able to immediately locate McCoy.

Spock's tricorder readings reveal that a woman named Edith Keeler died in the original timeline but survived in the timeline that McCoy altered; the ripple effect of that change--Keeler became a leader of the pacifist movement and delayed the entry of the United States into World War II, enabling the Nazis to win the war--destroyed history as Kirk, Spock and McCoy had known it. The problem is that by the time Spock figures out that Keeler must die Kirk has fallen deeply in love with her (and, unbeknownst to Kirk and Spock, Keeler has befriended McCoy and nursed him back to health as the effects of the drug overdose subsided). The episode culminates with the three shipmates suddenly reuniting on one side of a street and Keeler crossing the street to greet them, not noticing a fast moving truck that is approaching her. McCoy moves to save Keeler but Kirk restrains him; Keeler dies and the original timeline is restored. Though it pains Kirk greatly, he sacrifices Keeler's life for the greater good of the human race.

The Adjustment Bureau deals with some similar thematic issues but the main character ultimately makes a different choice than Kirk did. While Senate candidate David Norris is rehearsing his concession speech in a hotel men's room, he has a chance encounter with a woman named Elise; they form an instant connection but are separated before they can exchange contact information. According to "the plan" written by the mysterious "Chairman," David and Elise were only supposed to meet that one time; she inspired David to go off script in his concession speech and this boosted David's political career: the "Chairman" intends for David to become the President of the United States and ultimately have a powerful (though unspecified) positive impact on history. Instead, one of the "Chairman's" agents literally falls asleep on the job and David encounters Elise again, this time on a bus; they instantly connect again and she gives him her phone number. David then arrives at his office building earlier than he was supposed to and discovers the "Chairman's" Adjustment Bureau agents at work, freezing people in time temporarily in order to "adjust" their thinking. David flees but is captured by the agents and told that he must never speak a word about what he has seen nor ever try to contact Elise; if he disobeys, they will "adjust" his mind accordingly. One of the agents burns the piece of paper on which Elise wrote her phone number so that David cannot contact her (David still does not know her last name, residence or work place).

The rest of the movie revolves around David's determination to get back in touch with Elise no matter the price. David is told by an Adjustment Bureau official that if he and Elise become a couple he will not become President and she will become an ordinary dance teacher instead of the world renowned dancer she had been destined to become; a heartbroken David at first defies the Adjustment Bureau but later abandons Elise after she sprains her ankle during a performance: in an encounter at the hospital, the Adjustment Bureau official tells David that usually when someone comforts another by saying that there was nothing the person could have done it is true but in this instance it really was his fault that she got hurt and that if David stayed with her she would ultimately suffer a career-ending injury.

A few years later, David is well on the road to political success and Elise has become a famous dancer who is engaged to be married to a choreographer (with whom she had broken off a previous engagement after her first chance encounter with David). When David sees the engagement announcement in the newspaper he decides that he will do anything in his power to prevent that marriage so that he can spend the rest of his life with Elise. Aided by a sympathetic Adjustment Bureau official (the same one who fell asleep prior to David and Elise's second meeting), David reunites with Elise, asks her to trust him and--while they are being chased by Adjustment Bureau officials--tries to explain everything that has happened. David and Elise are eventually cornered but instead of having their minds "adjusted" the sympathetic Adjustment Bureau official tells them that the "Chairman" has been so moved by the power of their love that he has rewritten his "plan." Apparently, David and Elise will live together happily ever after, though no indication is given about what this means in terms of David's political career and/or Elise's dancing career.

The Adjustment Bureau is a powerful love story that raises intriguing questions about free will, destiny and self sacrifice. During a key exposition scene, David challenges a high ranking Adjustment Bureau official to explain why David and Elise cannot be together. The official does not answer that question at first; it is strongly implied that the official does not know all of the contents of the "plan" and it is made clear throughout the movie that the "plan" often changes, both because of random actions and also because of various "adjustments." The high ranking Adjustment Bureau official tells David that the "Chairman" gave human beings free will but this led to the Dark Ages; the "Chairman" then provided the Renaissance and the Enlightenment but as soon as he provided free will again the result was two World Wars, the Holocaust and a world on the brink of nuclear annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis). Since that time, the "Chairman" tasked the Adjustment Bureau with making sure that the human race does not destroy itself.

David's parents and brother died when he was young and it is later revealed that the deaths of his father and brother were part of the "plan" (his mother's death was random); the loneliness in David's heart is ameliorated by the public adoration he receives as a politician--but if he and Elise get married then she will fill that void in his heart and he will no longer have the drive to continue his political career. Framing this in terms of City on the Edge of Forever, David is being asked by the Adjustment Bureau to sacrifice some of his personal happiness in exchange for playing a role in saving the human race, much like Kirk had to sacrifice his beloved Edith Keeler to prevent the Nazis from conquering the world. Kirk agonized but ultimately decided that he must act on behalf of humanity; David was willing to possibly wreck the "plan" if necessary rather than be separated from Elise. The movie takes the easy way out, in a sense, by not showing what happens to the world after David and Elise get back together: we are told that the "plan" has been changed and are left with the assumption that everything ends well--but what if the "plan" could not have been changed? Would David have been right to pursue Elise even if this would plunge humanity into some kind of Dark Age?

An even bigger issue that the movie skirts is the question of why the world is so messed up now if the "Chairman" and his agents have been adjusting things since the Kennedy Administration; the high ranking Adjustment Bureau official dismisses David's inquiry about that subject by simply declaring that humanity is still here and humanity would not still be here if the "Chairman" had not intervened--but that is a copout: if the "plan" can be changed to accommodate David and Elise's love then why could it not have been changed to prevent the Vietnam War, Pol Pot's massacres, AIDS, world hunger, the 9/11 attacks and so many other tragedies that have afflicted the world?

The Adjustment Bureau is an engaging, heartfelt movie--and a very touching love story--but it ultimately provides no answers to the profound questions it raises about free will and destiny; I fully realize that the movie was not intended to provide such answers and that, indeed, such answers may not even exist: I just find it fascinating to compare the choice made by Captain Kirk with the choice made by David Norris. If there is a "Chairman" whose job is to make sure that everything runs correctly then why would humans even be required to make such heart-wrenching choices? If there is no such "Chairman" then is one obligated to be like Captain Kirk and sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good? What if a person truly wants to make that particular choice but is not presented with a clearly correct way to do so?

There are no easy answers to these questions but I credit the writers, directors and actors involved with both projects for raising these issues in thought provoking, powerful and yet entertaining ways.

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