Following the success of IP-friendly videogame film Free Guy, director Shawn Levy and star Ryan Reynolds have reteamed for a more downbeat sci-fi drama, which deals with that core pillar of American blockbuster filmmaking: Daddy Issues.
On the surface though, The Adam Project is pure time-travel fluff, Terminator meets Green Lantern by way of Stranger Things. The basic pitch is that Reynolds plays a futuristic pilot who travels back in time to his past (which is our present, roughly) to stop his father (Mark Ruffalo) from inventing time travel and dooming the world.
Unfortunately, he miscalculates and ends up crashing into the back yard of his younger self (Walker Scobell). Now, he has to team up with Young Adam to avoid detection by some one-note baddies, track down his missing wife Laura (Zoe Saldana) and save the future. All in a day’s (or, around 106 minutes’) work.
In many ways, the film stands in sharp contrast to Levy and Reynolds’ last collaboration. While he's as buff and wisecracking as ever, Reynolds’ character in this film feels considerably more beaten-down than usual, and while the stakes are high the action doesn’t move far from the rural, forested small town where Adam grew up.
While Free Guy was a fairly sprawling story, this movie feels small and sparse, even with an all-star cast that includes Jennifer Garner and Catherine Keener alongside Saldana, Ruffalo and Reynolds. Still, perhaps there’s a reason for this. Whether by chance or for COVID-compliant production reasons, characters stay in relatively small, closed groups during the film, with key figures not interacting despite the obvious storytelling potential.
It's hard to discuss without giving away too much of the story, but I was struck regularly by how strange and closed-off different acts of this film felt, and it contributes to an overall thinness in the world it creates. How does a story with so much action and so many big actors still feel so underpowered?
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In fairness, this may be because the main focus of the film lies elsewhere. And that is as follows: Ryan Reynolds teams up with a 12-year-old version of his sarcastic public persona, and both of them confront their issues with lovely absent father Mark Ruffalo. And to their credit, this element of the film is probably the strongest.
Scobell and Reynolds make for an appealing duo, and it feels plausible that the dweeby but cocky Young Adam could actually turn into his older self (unlike a similar dynamic in recent superhero movie Shazam! – a great film, but the older and younger actors felt like they had completely different personalities).
Ruffalo is also game as a dream dad who’s slightly spikier than you’d expect, especially when dealing with the bitterness of Reynolds’ older Adam. Elsewhere, Saldana and Garner do their best but don’t have much screentime to work with before they zap away from the story.
The villains are fairly moustache-twirling and one-note, and the goons are literally faceless and disposable (they rarely if ever remove their masks, and die in a gore-free puff of glitter for time-travel reasons).
The biggest clanger in the casting comes when an important character is digitally de-aged, and it’s so obvious and awkward that it massively detracts from every scene they’re in. This technology might have come on in leaps and bounds, but there’s clearly still a way to go before it’s seamless. In this film, it’s positively seamy.
Overall, The Adam Project delivers what you’d expect from its trailers and general vibe. Reynolds makes some wisecracks and pop culture references, people shoot ray guns, someone does a cool car chase, barrel rolls a jet or fights with off-brand lightsabers, and by the end we all learn that maybe the only real time travel is the family we make along the way (or something).
It’s perfectly serviceable fare that will distract you from the world for an hour and 45 minutes. And really, what else is Netflix for?