Both the need and the impossibility of original stories is something that comes up a lot throughout the medium of cinema; everyone desperately tries (or just claims) to want to make something invigoratingly singular and/or original, yet most of the time the narratives themselves — depending on how close you dig into them — are likely some variation on something you’ve seen before. In today’s current IP-driven Hollywood system, “original” ideas are few and far between, and when you do wish on some cursed monkey’s paw that the larger Hollywood system would make more “original” movies, you usually get something like The Adam Project, an amalgamation of Back to the Future meets Star Wars meets Top Gun meets The Last Starfighter (among others). It’s a film that’s in a very similar ilk of director Shawn Levy and his star Ryan Reynolds’ previous collaboration, Free Guy. That film wasn’t a sequel, a reboot, a franchise extension, or anything else drawn from pre-existing IP, though the film itself proved that the distinction of being original and not to be dispiritingly thin. To go right along with Levy’s work on the Netflix homage-a-thon Stranger Things, with The Adam Project he continues to serve up microwaved leftovers and somehow gets called a chef, by some.
The algorithmic blandness of The Adam Project feels of a piece with another Reynolds/Netflix front-page-placeholder, Red Notice, in that there’s no evidence that anyone cares about the material. They’re just calculating what they think the broadest most general audience might like, based on past blockbuster hits and perhaps some rigorous focus-group testing. And it’s not like Reynolds really is capable of disguising it, either: Not caring is his personal brand, the air of smart-ass disaffection is what he’s mostly been doing for the last twenty years. He quips away until called upon to show a little earnestness, and that’s when his limitations are exposed.
As for Levy’s leftovers: The Back to the Future connection is strongest in The Adam Project, to the point where it’s referenced explicitly in the dialogue, but while Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s franchise famously built tension over the implications of time travel, this film, on the other hand, smugly laughs them all away. In his standard everyman role, Reynolds stars as Adam, a normal guy in the extremely not-normal situation of piloting a space jet through a wormhole in 2050 and accidentally landing in 2022. It’s there where he meets the twelve-year-old version of himself (Walker Scobell) and it turns out that young Adam talks exactly like Ryan Reynolds.
The butterfly effect doesn’t even begin to account for how a man interacting with his younger self might change the future, but again, such questions are nothing The Adam Project is interested in sorting out. (When young Adam asks old Adam if he remembers meeting himself, he all but gets a pat on his silly little head.) The basic gist is that time travel is a bad idea that Adam’s late father (Mark Ruffalo) had an important role in developing it, so the two Adams must go back a little further in time to talk to their dad before their adversary, Maya (Catherine Keener), alters the futures irreversibly. And that’s not even mentioning the emotional business the film tries to handle on the side, like the two Adams’ relationship with their grieving single mother (Jennifer Garner) and the older Adam’s marriage to Laura (Zoe Saldaña), which all these time-altering shenanigans might wipe away.
Time travel allows Adam to have a metaphysical conversation with himself, which yields little more than the narrow insight that he should have been kinder to his mother and understood his father better. The space-time continuum bends to accommodate the banal. As The Adam Project drearily goes through the sci-fi/action motions, it’s the supporting actors who prove most acutely painful to watch, because Hollywood seems incapable of offering roles worthy of them. Twenty years ago, Ruffalo looked like the next Brando in You Can Count On Me, and now he’s logging time in the MCU and trading punches with Ryan Reynolds. And the saltiness that Keener has brought to Nicole Holofcener films undergoes a branding here as Maya shouts incoherent abuse from the cockpit of her space jet and interacts with a creepy digitally de-aged/deep-faked younger version of herself. They were once apart of incredible films that didn’t desperately try and claim to be “original” — film’s who’s identities came naturally rather than being setting out to please. Straining for the broadest audience satisfaction, The Adam Project is a witless trifle; a film that shamelessly serves up stale leftovers.
The Adam Project is available to stream on Netflix