Tag Archives: science fiction

Review – Arrival (12a) [2016]

arrival-title-banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners, Sicario, Untitled Blade Runner film

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Johann Johannsson – Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Sicario, The Mercy

Aliens invading Earth is not an original idea. Since 1996, there has been an overabundance of alien invasion movies. From the entertaining (Independence Day I and Men in Black I); to the risible (Mars Attacks! and Battlefield Earth); to the Tom Cruise saves the day flicks (War of the Worlds, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow); to a board game adaptation (Battleship, starring deserved Golden Raspberry winner Rihanna); to comic book adaptations (The Avengers I and Man of Steel); to the dull (Battle: LA and Independence Day II), audiences have seemingly seen it all when it comes to this genre. So how can Arrival differentiate itself and stamp its own mark?

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

Arrival is based on the short story by Ted Chiang. Twelve UFOs (shaped like giant contact-lenses) station themselves on random locations in the world. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the US military asks Louise (Amy Adams), an expert linguistics lecturer, to use her philological skills to help the US government. Louise agrees and together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, they try to work out what the aliens are saying, why they have come, and what their intentions are.

Concurrently, Louise keeps thinking of her daughter, Hannah. Somehow, Louise’s interactions with Hannah have a link to the aliens. But what is it?

Arrival is an interesting and original sci-fi film. Unlike the movies listed above, this one has no action sequences. Indeed, it is anti-action and does not depend on mass special effects either. Rather, the movie stresses the need for dialogue between the humans and the great other. This is most refreshing as guns, explosions, and the annihilation of aliens has long since become a sci-fi trope.

The stress for dialogue also enables viewers to comprehend the nature of our own languages and how they have shaped societies, which is interesting. Furthermore, the film gives us insight into a lost past in which peoples who had no common language made peace and worked with one other: for example, when the Spanish and Portuguese invaded Latin America in the late-fifteen century, and when the British began forging an empire in India in the seventeenth century. (Granted, the Spanish, Portuguese and British killed their fair share of the indigenous populations. But they still had to communicate and work with those they didn’t kill.)

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Yet, as interesting as it is watching humans trying to work a new language, it is not particularly stimulating. At times, it is like watching someone untie a bunch of tangled wires or put together a complex, multi-piece puzzle. Both of which are fascinating, but become tedious after a while. Arrival does, however, do its best to keep viewers attentive. Principally, this is done by Forest Whitaker’s character (repeatedly) urging Amy Adams/Louise and Jeremy Renner/Ian to find out the intentions of the aliens because the US, Chinese, Russian and Sudanese(?) governments are preparing to launch military assaults on the UFOs/aliens. It is a good method, but one that becomes cheap and wearisome after a while.

Moreover, Arrival’s ending has two elements: one is very clever and satisfying; the other, though, streams into wishful thinking. This leaves audiences with a peculiar feeling. One wants to praise the finale, yet one cannot help but feel that it weakens the film as most of mankind (realists) understand that international diplomacy does not work the way the movie illustrates; self-interest being one of the many reasons for this.

But for all the plot’s problems, the actors perform well; especially, Amy Adams. Her character is multifaceted since Louise is witty, successful and hardworking, but also insecure and in grief. The pressure of trying to understand the Alien’s language rapidly gets at her, as well, and the way it manifests itself makes for curious viewing.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Unusually, the male characters are marginalised. Normally in Hollywood, it is the other way round. But Arrival has smartly inverted this cliché. Renner’s character/Ian is a good support for Louise and they work well together. Whitaker’s character/Colonel Weber is less so. He has one purpose and it is a relief that his character does not stray into the puffed-up general bad-guy trope, like Steven Lang’s villainous army man in Avatar. This is a good thing too for two reasons: one, Whitaker/Weber is not a villain (on the contrary, he is just a man who is afraid of the unknown); and, two, it helps to make Arrival something different.

Arrival is a brave and admirable alien invasion drama. It is distinctive as it refuses to go down the action and CGI route. Instead, it relies on its characters and the quest for dialogue and peace. The movie achieves this with success. For sure, the movie has issues, notably its ending. Nevertheless, Arrival must be commended. It stamps its own mark in a genre that has otherwise become generic and braindead.

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Review – Ex Machina (15) [2015]

Ex Machina - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alex Garland

Writer:

  • Alex Garland – 28 days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Halo

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Geoff Barrow
  • Ben Salisbury

For decades, mankind has had a continuing urge to create and enhance artificial intelligence (AI). This has been reflected and taken to all kinds of extremes and dangers in science fiction films, such as the Terminator franchise, A.I., i,RobotHer and Transcendence. Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, smartly deals with the issue of AI again and the possible consequences of it.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finding out at work, to his delight, that he has won the competition to be part of a break-through experiment.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finding out at work, to his delight, that he has won the competition to be part of a break-through experiment.

Ex Machina is about a programmer called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a competition at work to go to a remote facility to be part of an experiment. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the man behind the experiment, wants Caleb to find out if his human-looking robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), can pass the Turing Test. But neither the experiment nor Nathan is what they seem.

Ex Machina is an interesting and stylish movie. Alex Garland successfully contrasts the beautiful and open nature of a remote location, with the claustrophobic feel of being based there. This creates a natural tension that never truly leaves viewers. It might be allayed for parts of the film, but at the slightest change in circumstance, this tension (re-)tightens one’s muscles, reminding viewers of how terrifying remote locations can be.

In addition to this natural terror, Garland, who has written a superb script, tackles some thought-provoking (and disquieting) topics concerning AI, to augment one’s terrors. Some of the topics have already been done with varying levels of success in Transcendence and Her which dealt with the (disturbing) issues of consciousness within AI and having a relationship with AI, respectively. But Ex Machina arguably takes these issues to higher (and more alarming) levels by blurring the lines between people and machines; notably, by giving AI robots sexual desires and the capability to act on and enjoy them.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, unrecognisable with a beard) talking with Caleb about the purpose of the experiment.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, unrecognisable with a beard) talking with Caleb about the purpose of the experiment.

Ostensibly, the issue of sexual desire within an AI robot may seem far-fetched and ludicrous. But watch the documentary series Through The Wormhole, plus appreciate the intelligent ways that modern technology can respond to requests, and it might dawn on audiences that what we see in Ex Machina is not so far-fetched or ridiculous and that the lines between people and machines is genuinely being distorted. Bearing all this in mind, Ex Machina enables audiences to believe in this distortion because of Alicia Vikander’s astonishing performance as the AI robot, Ava. Ava’s (arousing) physique and general movements are robot-like. But her facial features and her observational and intellectual sharpness are so human-like that one almost forgets they’re watching an AI robot.

Yes, it helps that Ava/Vikander is an attractive woman and that the special effects on her are outstanding. Equally, though, it helps that Caleb and Nathan, played well by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, respectively, buy into Ava’s supposed realness and respond to her (human?) personality in differing but very human ways. Indeed, their responses say something about their personalities. Yet, while audiences learn about Caleb’s background and why he is the way he is, the same cannot be said for Nathan. This is unfortunate as there is undoubtedly more to Nathan than he lets on; his brooding face, alone, tells us that.

Caleb having one of his sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if Ava has human-like consciousness.

Caleb having one of his sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if Ava has human-like consciousness.

However, the lack of information given about Nathan is not the only element of Ex Machina’s plot that weakens it. The film is slow-paced; so much so, that for much of the movie one may wonder where the film is going. Moreover, the ending leaves itself open to scrutiny, not to mention out of kilter and jarring to the rest of the film. Nevertheless, one should not stress too much on the movie’s faults because so much of it is impressive.

Over-all, Ex Machina is an intriguing, weird, and noteworthy film. The movie is slow and the ending is questionable, but all the same Alex Garland has made a striking piece of work in his directorial debut. He deals perceptively and philosophically with important issues regarding AI. These are extremely pertinent considering mankind’s disconcerting hunger to further enhance AI. For heaven knows that these issues will not be isolated to the realms of science fiction films for much longer as it is likely that the world’s first Ava will be created in the not-too-distant future.

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Review – Elysium (15) [2013]

Elysium - title banner

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

  • Neil Blomkamp – District 9, Chappie

Cast:

  • Matt Damon – True Grit, The Adjustment Bureau, ContagionInterstellar
  • Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs, Flightplan, Carnage
  • Alice Braga – I Am Legend, The Rite, Kill Me Three Times
  • Diego Luna – The Terminal, Criminal, Milk
  • William Fichtner – Crash, The Dark Knight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Sharlto Copley – District 9, The A-Team, Chappie
  • Emma Tremblay – The Judge

Music Composer:

  • Ryan Aman

Science fiction films set in the future have a knack for painting a bleak picture for humanity. That is, until an American hero decides that he’s had enough and rips up the regime as he knows it. In I Am Legend, a cure for cancer led to a mutation that practically wiped out humanity, bar Will Smith who tried to save mankind; in In Time, the poor scrounged in squalor in confined areas until their short-lived clocks ran out, while the rich lived forever in their luxurious areas, until Justin Timberlake broke the system; and in Oblivion, a victorious war against aliens led to the Earth being uninhabitable, until Tom Cruise saved it. Elysium also portrays a depressing picture for mankind, only this time it’s Matt Damon playing the predictable protagonist.

Los Angeles in 2154, depicting a run-down, third world city in which crime is rampant and dogs must eat dogs to survive.

Los Angeles in 2154, depicting a run-down, third world city in which crime is rampant and dogs must eat dogs to survive.

Elysium is based in the year 2154 and centres round Max (Matt Damon). Max lives on the overcrowded Earth, along with all the poor people, while the rich live on a luxurious space station called Elysium. Working in a factory, Max sustains an (avoidable) injury at work. He is told he has only five days to live.

But there is an alternative. Max must go to Elysium, where his ailments can be cured because the rich on Elysium are so far advanced that they have found cures for all health problems. The difficulty for Max is getting to Elysium as he can only travel there illegally. But to do so, he has to get past the aggressive androids that control Earth, as well as Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defence for Elysium, who kills anyone attempting to illegally reach Elysium by using her mercenaries on Earth, such as Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to do her dirty work.

The premise for Elysium is good. Issues like why Elysium was built; how people came to be on Elysium; as well as class divisions and the practicalities of class mobility are fantastic starting points to engage audiences. Moreover, the special effects are brilliant. They look natural and give one a true feel for the world that director Neil Blomkamp has created.

The space station, Elysium, in which the crème of the crop of humanity dwell, with an awesome view of Earth to marvel over instead of a landscape.

The space station, Elysium, in which the crème of the crop of humanity dwell, with an awesome view of Earth to marvel over instead of a landscape.

But, oddly, Elysium fails to engross its viewers. The dialogue is cliché-ridden from three minutes in to the final scene, none of the above-mentioned matters are dealt with properly (if at all), and much of the plot is unoriginal and has been seen before; for example, emotionless (anal) robots controlling whole populations. This was handled in i,Robot (and Will Smith sorted out the problem back in 2004).

Apart from being derivative of other movies, Elysium’s plot rapidly descends into farce before the predictable futuristic ray-gun fight between the hero and the villain, and all the antagonists (all white as it happens) are unimaginative, one-dimensional swines.

The fact that all the villains in Elysium are white raises another problem with the film: its shamefully contrite thinly-veiled racist elements. All the poor, the ill-educated, and the criminals are either Mexican or black (bar Matt Damon), while the elites on Elysium are white with either English, French or white South African accents. Haven’t we moved on since the 19th-century? (Colonialism has ended after-all.)

Matters of racism aside, the acting is mixed by the cast. For the protagonists: Matt Damon does a decent job as the central protagonist without being noteworthy; Alice Braga plays okay as Max’s love interest/damsel-in-distress/the caring mother of Matilda (Emma Tremblay); and Diego Luna is fine as the leading gangster of the illegal (Mexican) underworld.

Max (Matt Damon) trying to help Frey (Alice Braga) and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) from aggressive androids and others.

Max (Matt Damon) trying to help Frey (Alice Braga) and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) from aggressive androids and others.

For the antagonists: Jodie Foster gives an unusually wooden performance, adopting an unnecessary English accent that looks like it has been bizarrely dubbed post-production (evidently her lines were not contrived enough first time round); William Fichtner is awful as… (I’m not really sure what his role was meant to be); yet, Sharlto Copley is absolutely brilliant as the psychopathic henchman. Granted, his role is that of a sadistic villain that one has generally seen before, but Copley plays it frighteningly well and makes his audience feel uncomfortable whenever he’s on the screen, which is an achievement. Unsurprisingly, Copley is the star of this average movie.

Over-all, Elysium is alright. The film has superb special effects and a solid basis with which to make a genuinely interesting movie, even if it is a miserable portrait of a future for mankind. However, Elysium fails to build on its strong foundations and, instead, is stuffed with clichés, subtle racism, standard storyline developments and stereotypical characters for the genre. And to top it up, Elysium has Matt Damon playing the role that Will Smith and Tom Cruise have made their own: the all American hero.

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Review – Thor 3D (12a) [2011]

Star Rating 3.5/5

Another superhero movie? Haven’t we seen it all before? In fairness, one probably has seen a great deal of what Thor has to offer; especially if one is interested in this genre. Nevertheless, despite being a predominantly male-orientated film, Thor is an enjoyable movie with some awesome special effects.

Thor, left, standing behind his father, King Odin, and alongside his brother, Loki as they approach their enemies..

Thor is about (surprise, surprise) a young man called Thor (Chris Hemsworth – Star Trek, Red Dawn, The Avengers Assemble). He is a ferocious, unnaturally powerful warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard. Yet, Thor is arrogant and cruel. After disobeying his father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins – Hannibal series, Mission Impossible II, Fracture), he is stripped of his powers and his hammer (the source of his powers); and banished from Asgard.

He wakes up to find himself in the desert of New Mexico, America, to be surrounded by a scientist called Jane (Natalie Portman – Black SwanStar Wars IIII, Lawless), plus her assistants Darcy (Kat Dennings – The 40 Year Old Virgin, The House Bunny, Lives of the Saints) and Erik (Stellan Skarsgard – Pirates of the Caribbean II & III, Angels and Demons, The Avengers Assemble). Thor is determined to do whatever it takes to regain his god-like powers and return to Asgard. Meanwhile in Asgard, in Thor’s absence, a traitor increases his influence over the ailing Odin and his court. This will set Asgard to war, again, against the frost-people of Jotenheim.

Despite being about fictional realms, the plot for Thor is easy to follow. The director, Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Frankenstein, Valkyrie), has structured the film well so that each scene flows nicely after the other and the pace of the film is just right. As a result, Thor is a very entertaining movie. Undoubtedly, the action scenes in the film are the highlight as they are superb and will leave viewers wanting more.

The movie may lack the goriness of Watchmen (not to mention the political connotations of that film); yet, Thor makes up for it in special effects. Regardless of whether they are accompanying the action scenes or are merely backgrounds for the fictional sceneries of the different worlds, the special effects throughout are fantastic. In some ways, they are so good they almost rival those in Avatar. It is a shame that Asgard is explored less than Pandora because some of the sceneries in Thor have the same ‘wow’ factor; particularly during the credits at the end. The 3D assists and makes the effects a little more spell-binding; however, on the whole, Thor is another example of a 2D film that has been converted, post-production, into 3D.

Thor promising Jane that he will return to Earth to see her.

Unlike the action scenes and the special effects, the acting in Thor is quite average. Chris Hemsworth performs adequately as the main character. But, as Thor, he is not given the depth of personality to make himself stand out in the same way as Christian Bale does as Batman. This results in him coming across as quite immature and superficial.

It is a shame that less attention is given to Thor’s younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston – Conspiracy, Midnight In Paris, The Avengers Assemble), as it could have made for interesting viewing. But, alas, we are deprived of this. Instead, we have the standard ‘lesser’ brother who wants to emulate his older, more decorated sibling. The other characters, for better or worse, are not given much time on screen. Again, they all have little by way of depth and do not add much to the film. (Yes, even the gorgeous Natalie Portman.)

Ultimately, Thor may initially have the feel of ‘yet-another-superhero-movie.’ It may not have the violence of Watchmen or the deep characters of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, or the political nuances of those films. Nevertheless, Thor is a fun film with plenty of action and some awe-inspiring sci-fi-style special effects.

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Review – Source Code (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

A friend of mine billed Source Code as ‘The Matrix meets Minority Report.’ While this may be a tad broad, it is not an entirely inaccurate explanation of Source Code. Although a Sci-fi film at its core, Source Code is more enjoyable to the general public than many other titles in its genre and will leave one thinking afterwards too.

Source Code is about sending someone into a computer-regeneration of a specific incident in the past in order to find out (useful) information. Throughout the movie, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal – Rendition, Brothers, Nocturnal Animals), a US soldier in a helicopter unit, is constantly sent into the Source Code for an eight-minute stint. Each time, Colter finds himself on a train sitting opposite the cute-looking Christina (Michelle Monaghan – Mission Impossible III, Eagle Eye, Due Date); and at the end of the eight minutes, the train blows up. Himself included.

Earlier, a bomb went off on a train in Chicago and it is rumoured that another one will go off in the middle of the same city later that day. Colter’s task is to find the bomb and discover information about the bomber. His superiors, the pretty Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Up in the Air, The Judge) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright – Casino Royale, W., The Ides of March) believe that the information could be crucial in deterring the next attack. Yet, after going into the Source Code a few times, Colter’s motives change. He intends not only to complete his mission; but also to save the passengers on the train and ask out Christina.

Source Code’s plot has numerous holes that one can pick at without difficulty. It can also feel quite repetitive at times. The director, Duncan Jones (Moon), a relative novice to the industry, puts forward some interesting ideas that bring to mind tenuous comparisons to The Matrix for de facto teleporting someone into a computer-generated world; and Minority Report for preventing an incident from occurring by using highly futuristic and technologically advanced methods. Yet, Jones also leaves several aspects of the plot with a lot of explaining to do; most notably the paradox of time-travelling and the ending.

One thing, however, that works in Source Code’s favour is that it does not descend into a mushy love-story like so many other films. The dialogue is not bad either and there are humorous moments too. Again, Jones fails to explain the quantum physics behind the invention of the Source Code; but, speculatively-speaking, he has done this deliberately knowing that the majority of the film’s viewers will neither understand nor be interested in such terminology.

Captain Colleen Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge urging Colter to go back into the Source Code so as to unearth more information about the bomb and the bomber.

That Jake Gyllenhaul plays well as the main character gives the movie the credence the plot lacks. He is not given a particularly challenging role, but he still performs decently enough. The same can be said for the other members of the cast. Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright may act competently; however, they are not given enough screen-time for their characters to be anything other than two-dimensional.

Alike the acting, the choreography is fine. For a movie that is cyclic and teleports the main character suddenly and regularly, it does not feel overly jerky to watch. This takes some skill and credit must go to Jones for this.

All-in-all, Source Code is a surprisingly entertaining film. It has a decent cast, some good jokes and clever ideas. Nevertheless, the storyline is deeply flawed and the ending rubber-stamps it. Ironically though, the film’s very flaws are what will keep viewers thinking long after the film finishes.

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Review – The Adjustment Bureau (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 2/5

Some critics proclaimed that The Adjustment Bureau was a fine amalgam between the Bourne series and Inception. Well, it bears no resemblance to either film. Moreover, it is a poorly executed movie in just about every sense.

The Adjustment Bureau begins with Congressman, David Norris (Matt Damon – The DepartedTrue Grit, Contagion), running for a seat in the Senate. On election night, he goes to the toilet to prepare a speech when he bumps into Elise (Emily Blunt – The Devil Wears Prada, Young Victoria, The Wolfman). Attraction is instant, but Elise leaves without giving David her contact details.

The agents who work for the Chairman. It is their job to 'adjust' peoples' fates to ensure they fit in with the Chairman's grand design for humanity.

Coincidentally, soon afterward in the film, they meet again on the bus; and this time David acquires her number. Yet, after leaving her, David comes across some people he was not expecting to meet. These men are agents who ‘adjust’ people’s futures in order to follow the plans set forth by the Chairman (God?). They inform David that he was not supposed to have met Elise for a second time and that he can never see her again. But David is determined to be with Elise; even if it means forfeiting his political ambitions. This, in turn, sets him on a collision course with powers greater than mankind.

The plot for this movie rapidly descends into a cliché love-story that tests the patience of those who believed that they were going to watch something a little more original and intellectually stimulating. The director, George Nolfi, to some extent tries to play to a more academic-minded audience by including the debate of free-will vs. God’s divine master-plan in the film. (Although, if anyone thinks that this debate is new, let’s bear in mind that it has been discussed regularly since the Middle Ages or, even more likely, since the Bible was written.) Yet, by only dealing with this debate vis-à-vis the love-story, Nolfi has ensured that all highly complex discourse on the subject appears only at a superficial level. It could have and should have been done better; especially when one bears in mind that this is the same man who wrote a well-crafted script for The Bourne Ultimatum.

David and Elise running frantically from the Chairman's agents so that they can be together.

Alike the debate, the dialogue is equally vain throughout The Adjustment Bureau. The acting is not much better either. Matt Damon gives his role a decent punt. Nevertheless, one questions why he chose to do this role in the first place. For the lesser known Emily Blunt, it is obvious why she has been chosen. But apart from looking pretty and having an over-all good physique, her performance is little better than her showing in the dreadful film, The Wolfman. Indeed, if it were not for her above-mentioned featured, plus her striking blue eyes and wonderful English accent; it is hard to see how she will ever be able to reach the dizzying heights that Natalie Portman has achieved in recent times.

The rest of the cast, particularly the Chairman’s agents, are woeful. Similarly, the special effects are pitiable because they look unreal. (Special effects have to at least give the façade of looking like they might be genuine.) The cinematography is not worth commenting upon as it is virtually non-existent. The choreography, on the other hand, has been pieced together smoothly, which enables the viewer to follow the plot easily.

How The Adjustment Bureau has been advertised as ‘Bourne meets Inception’ is beyond belief and nothing more than a marketing con. The Adjustment Bureau looks like it has been done on the cheap. It may try to be intelligent; yet that does not mean that it warrants comparisons to the aforementioned high-class films. The Adjustment Bureau needs a more original storyline; plus better acting, dialogue, special effects and care as a starting-point before it can be put into in the same bracket as the Bourne series or Inception.

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