We sure did something to warrant two films in the space of a year starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, but what that is remains an open question.
The Adam Project arrives hot foot in the wake of Free Guy which, last summer, projected Reynolds into the virtual reality world of a plucky NPC who gains self-awareness, free to evolve into a slick action badass able to win the heart of Jodie Comer’s gamer girl. Free Guy had something of an old-school blockbuster about it, fuelled up with 21st century visual aesthetics, and though not always successful in the ambition it had, Reynolds was compelling and enjoyable in a role that, to a degree, cast him against type.
Arguably, ever since Deadpool turbocharged his career after the failure of Green Lantern and a fairly plodding cycle of comedies and action vehicles, Reynolds has understood that the best on-screen persona is one combining his natural propensity for all-American sarcasm with an ironic self-deprecation, even geeky subtext, which endears him to an audience beyond his matinee idol good looks. Levy understood this equation in Free Guy. He doesn’t quite get it with The Adam Project in the same way.
This is not as successful or interesting a film. Indeed, The Adam Project is yet another example of how the Netflix algorithm just isn’t to be trusted.
You can’t fault the idea, which despite being floated since at least 2012 through a spec script written originally by T. S. Nowlin, practically screams high concept.
Reynolds plays Adam, a time travelling pilot from the year 2050 who crash lands into 2022 after attempting to go back in time to find his wife Laura (played by Zoe Saldana), who vanished in mysterious circumstances from a future dominated by Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), the CEO of a conglomerate who control time travel. Adam ends up encountering his precocious younger 12 year old self (Walker Scobell) over whom he breaks all of the rules of time travel by telling him the truth, helping repair his relationship with his anxious mother (Jennifer Garner, playing one suspects a variation on herself), and later working to try and prevent the existence of time travel by going further back in time to recruit Adam’s deceased father (Mark Ruffalo), who was the guy who actually invented time travel.
Stop me if this sounds convoluted because there’s an unusual paradox at the heart of The Adam Project.
Levy’s film, credited in the end to Nowlin and three other writers, very clearly has a great deal going on, yet equally it never particularly feels as if it has anything in the way of true substantive depth. It’s odd. It’s as if in taking the central time-bending concept of the script, Levy and the writers worked hard to strip away any of the composite elements that could have added not just intrigue but complexity, or the sense of true science-fiction, in order to create a cookie-cutter Netflix action blockbuster.
It has been a while since Reynolds has both been this annoying on screen and, as it happens, this overtly moralistic. When he isn’t breaking the rules of temporal mechanics, his older Adam is busy grappling with the realities of never meeting his wife in the alternate reality he might create, helping out his younger self with bullies he remembers giving him a hard time, spooking out his equivalent age widowed mother at a bar and generally telling most people around him how much they’ve messed everything up. Charitably you might frame Adam as the product of a future generation who have lived with profound negative societal change thanks to the actions of people in the past, but The Adam Project isn’t exactly screaming with allegory.
The defence of this often tedious cod-science fiction, syrupy schlock will undoubtedly be that Levy & Reynolds have built a project around their strengths. Levy as the steward of the popular Night at the Museum trilogy, kickstarting a career that has largely comprised of working with significant comedy stars—Tina Fey, Vince Vaughn etc…, and Reynolds who rebadged himself as an action star with a line in irreverence. We’re not meant to take The Adam Project too seriously. Reynolds isn’t, quipping up a storm when Adam isn’t emoting, and twirling around what is effectively a lightsaber he uses to bash down sinister corporate time travel assassins like an MTV generation Jedi Knight. Saldana too plays a variation on the hot, kickass girl with a heart we’ve seen a dozen times before.
The irony of the villains being a corporate monolith in a film bankrolled by Netflix and featuring copious nods and homages to a range of popular, box office devouring pop culture franchises is almost certainly lost on The Adam Project. Remember that moment in Free Guy which references Disney IP? There’s nothing that egregious here but Levy’s film here does it by stealth. It wants you to feel The Adam Project is akin to the nostalgic, child friendly blockbusters of the 1980s or 90s (Levy is involved with Stranger Things, of course) when it substitutes genuine involvement and investment with short cut drama and soapy theatrics. You won’t care about any of these people because none of them feel in any way real, or speak in a discernibly real way. There is zero weight to any of it.
Maybe this is taking The Adam Project all too seriously. Perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy the schmaltzy ride of multiple generations of a family caught up in time travelling conspiracy. It would have helped in this regard had Levy’s film found a way to balance incredibly uneven plotting, condensed many of the ideas the film seeks to bounce around, and engage with the rules of the science-fiction world it creates (and there are rules here) with any kind of heft. But it just consistently seems embarrassed by how science-fiction it really is, and is ready to wisecrack and mention The Terminator, for example, whenever it comes close to actively engaging with what is a genuinely interesting core idea. The shield of quoting popular culture is used to barricade against any notion that The Adam Project might seek to be as niche or as interesting as many such films that came before it.
It is little surprise to hear in the wake of The Adam Project that Levy is in the frame to direct Deadpool 3, given the clear simpatico he and Reynolds have. It will help that they have a great set of characters to play with. That isn’t the case with The Adam Project, which while well-meaning is as derivative, corporate-driven and ultimately empty as Netflix films come. Modern science-fiction deserves better.
★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy
WRITERS: Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin
CAST: Ryan Reynolds, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner