The Adam Project (2022)
How do you even criticize something that left no mark on your psyche whatsoever? That’s the problem I encounter when coming at The Adam Project, the second collaboration between actor Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy following the not-particularly-great Free Guy (2021). Still, they seem to be enjoying their creative partnership, as Levy has just been announced as the director of Deadpool 3, so I guess I can look forward to that film bouncing off my brain like a sunbeam off a soap bubble in a year or two.
Well, as long as they’re having fun. And audiences seem to be having fun, too. Still, it’s not great when the most passionate and well-articulated defenses I’ve seen of The Adam Project amount to “it’s the perfect film to switch your brain off and watch with the family on a Friday night.” Sure, there’s a place for undemanding cinema — we all have our comfort foods, and I deny no man, woman, or enbie their security blanket — but that still doesn’t make this a great film. At best, The Adam Project sits at the peak of the bell curve, right in the middle of the quality spread. It is, at most, the screen equivalent of a really good Big Mac, and as much as you might like McDonald’s, there’s a reason those restaurants don’t get Michelin stars. Maybe that’s me being snooty or classist or trying to gatekeep, but I doubt it; I like a decent, cheap burger once in a while. This one feels like it’s been sitting under the warmer for too long.
Which it has — The Adam Project has been kicking around since at least 2012, when as a spec script by T.S. Nowlin, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), and it was earmarked as a project for Tom Cruise. Ten years later, and having passed through three other credited writers (Jonathan Tropper, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin), it arrives as a Netflix movie starring Ryan Reynolds as Adam Reed. And Walker Scobell as Adam Reed. Reynolds’ Adam is a hotshot pilot from 2050, which sounds far more impressive than the mouthy, put upon 12-year-old Adam Reed that Scobell plays, but our narrative here naturally flows from the younger Adam’s experience, so let’s start there.
Bullied at school and coping with the recent death of his father by being a sarcastic little shit, young Adam’s life takes a turn for the fantastical when his older self crashes a time-traveling jet into his backyard. Future Adam has risked it all to come back to, after some plot machinations and shifts in motivation, prevent the invention of time travel, which has turned the future into — and I’m paraphrasing here — The Terminator on a good day. As it turns out, his physicist father Louis (Mark Ruffalo) is chiefly responsible for time travel, but as we noted, he’s dead. So, both Adams head back to 2018, where they’ll save the future and possibly even process some trauma regarding their late father.
That’s a little complicated — the second time jump feels awkward to me — but that offers a lot of grist for the emotional catharsis mill. There are some primal questions in the mix here: what would you say to your younger self if you had the chance? What would you say to a dead loved one if you could? What would your younger self think of you? (that last one was addressed in the Disney/Bruce Willis clunker, The Kid)? Are your personal concerns more important than the bigger picture? In terms of plot, The Adam Project is a fairly generic PG sci-fi actioner, but thematically there’s a lot of opportunity here.
Unfortunately, the film as it exists largely squanders that opportunity, addressing its themes in the most generic and obvious ways. The life lessons Future Adam imparts on Young Adam largely consist of telling him not to be such a prick to his poor, recently widowed mother, Ellie (Jennifer Garner, who sadly doesn’t get much screentime with her 13 Going on 30 co-star, Ruffalo) and putting the fear of death into a couple of class bullies. Those are pretty small adjustments to bring the two different versions of the character into alignment, which tells us that Young Adam wasn’t necessarily far of beam in the first place.
And while future Adam talks about wilderness years as a fuck up before finding discipline in the Air Force, the film treats him with a weird kind of reverence, even when it becomes apparent that he’s traveled in time not to save the future but to save his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), a fellow time pilot who apparently died in a flight accident but whom Adam suspects was murdered by evil corporate exec Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener, utterly wasted as an extremely generic villain). Adam’s goals, no matter which version, are always simpatico with the greater good — but imagine if they weren’t? It’s easy to picture a version of The Adam Project wherein, with our POV firmly locked to Young Adam, we come to learn that Future Adam’s goal of changing the past to erase time travel/save his wife/save his dad is Not Great for the rest of the world, and Young Adam’s character arc ultimately involves both stopping him and not growing up to become him. It’s a minor shift but opens up richer, more complex possibilities.
That’s me breaking an unwritten rule of criticism — you generally shouldn’t try to imagine a better version of the film under scrutiny and instead just dig into the material as it stands. But I must say, for various reasons, I wound up watching this thing three times, and imagining better versions was the only way I made it through the third round with my soul intact. It takes a bit of effort; The Adam Project fails not in any large, single way but in a myriad of tiny ones.
By frequently putting us into Future Adam’s shoes instead of Young Adam, it robs us of any sense of wonder and mystery – and boy howdy, is this thing trying to borrow some of that ‘80s Spielberg wonder and mystery without actually doing the work, instead trusting that recreating, for example, a key sequence from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) will do the trick.
By giving Future Adam the most profound emotional catharsis (he’s just gotta get over being angry at his dad for dying), it locates the film’s emotional core in the wrong character — this is Young Adam’s story, right up until Ryan Reynolds wants it to be his, and then all bets are off. This is clearly a vanity project, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with an actor taking the creative reigns of a project (Deadpool as a screen franchise simply would not exist without RR stepping up and making it his) when what the star wants is at odds with what’s best for the film, you get a torpid mess like this. I would bet cash money there are earlier, better versions of the script where Future Adam has a role that is not so much reduced as decentralized, and all to the better.
The film’s lack of specificity hurts it too, whether it be the barely-sketched nightmare tomorrow that Future Adam has scarpered from or the exact aims of the hissable Maya and her hench-in-chief Christos (Alex Mallari Jr. showing up to give RR someone to punch on with from time to time). They’re the bad guys because Future Adam says they’re the bad guys, and they do bad guy things because the script tells them to; not once do they ever feel like real people. And frankly, neither does anyone else.
“So what? This is a brain-in-neutral family SF adventure, not a character study.” Well, here’s what: with the physical threat represented by Christos and his armored-up gun bunnies never feeling actually threatening, and the whole time travel/dark future device barely a note on a cocktail napkin, The Adam Project really wants us to sink our teeth into the father/son dynamic. Shawn Levy really wants us to; the fraught relationship between fathers and children is a frequent topic for him, particularly when it involves a single parent: Just in Time (1997), Night at the Museum (2006), Real Steel (2011), This is Where I Leave You (2014). I’m not a huge fan of Real Steel (I don’t know how you get from Lee Marvin punching robots to that film), but the relationship between Hugh Jackman’s washed-up palooka and his kid works. Here, the familial relationships are sketched so lightly as to barely register. When the Adams do finally meet their soon-to-be-dead dad back in 2018, years of resentment, anger, and grief are dealt with in a played-for-laughs punch up. Later, when all the wrongs of the world are righted, and everyone is about to revert back to their own timelines or something, a Field of Dreams (1989) style game of catch between the Adams and Daddy Ruffalo is clearly meant to be the emotional climax of the film; instead, it’s just kind of there, largely inert. The signifiers of fatherhood, childhood and familial idyll are all there, but because the preceding movie has never invested them with any emotional heft, the effect is utterly muted.
As it turns out, I did have a lot to say about The Adam Project, and I could say more. Sometimes these essays are a way for me to grapple with a film in a somewhat structured way to figure out why it bugs or why it rules (and preferably the latter). If I was to pick out one issue that sinks the good ship Adam Project for me, it’s this: narratively, it keeps telling us we should care but never manages to give us reasons why.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
The Adam Project is currently streaming on Netflix