Netflix reunites Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener – all from the director of Free Guy.
Count me among those who didn’t see it coming. For about a decade, The Adam Project blundered through development hell, at one point interestingly starring Tom Cruise, but was eventually dumped by Paramount on Netflix in mid-2020.
It’s understandable that Paramount might have thought this one was a tough sell. It’s a standalone sci-fi adventure, not relying on any kind of pre-existing property (the screenplay is credited to Jonathan Tropper, TS Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin), it’s the latest in a long line of films to try and capture the elusive ‘Amblin’ sensation of the 1980s. he does them a lot without necessarily feeling that he is stretching. And the film is also based on an unknown young talent, Walker Scobell.
Of course, the cast is bolstered by a very welcome ensemble, including Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, Catherine Keener and Zoe Saldana. But from the outside looking inside, the whole thing has three stars written all over it.
Here is the twist of the story though: The Adam Project is really, really good. It’s the best live-action family adventure I can remember in quite some time, and by the time the credits rolled – once I got myself together – I would have been very happy to go back to the start and watch everything again.
On the surface, then, the film is a fun, spin-off time travel adventure. Ryan Reynolds is Adam, the year 2050 version, who finds himself in 2022 when he needs help from, well, Adam. The 2022 version, played by Scobell. It’s quickly established that there’s a future to be saved, and it’s all wrestled around the screen with fine effects, footage where you can see what’s going on and Reynolds is doing what Reynolds is doing. It’s funny, breezy, and entertaining, with a dose of explanation of time travel rules thrown in for reasonable measure. Catherine Keener is additionally employed to be the villain of the piece, and in reality she is as aggrieved as villains in major films increasingly seem to be.
But there is another aspect to this. 2022 Adam has just lost his father, and his mother, Ellie – the excellent Jennifer Garner – is struggling to reconnect with him. She’s trying to be the best mother she can be, while breaking down a little inside and doing her best for her son. 2050 Adam’s future was shaped by this, and it’s coming to 2022 – are you still following? – with a whole lot of regrets, damages and knowledge. But, you know, the rules of time travel.
I won’t talk about the plot anymore, although a lot of it came out of it. I didn’t know anything going in, and it was a great way to see the movie. Because I’ve seen a lot of these family adventures over the years trying to figure out how a subset of 1980s movies endures. The Adam Project is one of the very, very few who understands why.
It’s not just that the film is entertaining and doesn’t go over its length. He also has a deep understanding of the issues and makes them relevant. What the aforementioned storyline balances isn’t just the checkbox — as well as what’s done — demanded by a blockbuster movie, but it’s also fundamentally about the relationships in a troubled family. Remember how the delightful animation Captain Underpants could have been about saving the world, but instead focused its plot on two friends who were separated in class, which was the worst thing in the world that could have happened to them? Or how The Goonies was actually saving a house to keep a bunch of family and friends together?
The Adam Project is in this mold. Not in a way: Instead, in a way that’s organic to the story, it’s handled really well, and it gives Garner’s character as much agency as the matching Adams.
If anything, it’s the tricks and the occasional action sequence that get in the way by a point or two here – as fun as Keener is, the whole villain bit is the least memorable part, and a big part of it. The surface story feels familiar – with the rest of the film completely grounded even as the world is threatened.
(A side note: if you like it, look for the little-seen Australian family comedy H is for happiness, which also has a bunch of good people in the middle of a broken family. It’s come and gone to the UK in record time, and it’s a delight waiting to be discovered).
Another clue as to why this all works is behind the camera. Director Shawn Levy previously collaborated with Reynolds on Pleasure free guybut go back to 2011 real steel – again, a film that put the heart on the show – and it’s a trilogy of family films out there that I’d say no one else can match in live-action over the past decade.
I think The Adam Project is however his best film. It’s not that it’s not easy to drill holes if you want to: but I can only say it as I found it. And I found it really, really moving, with moments that will comfortably outlast the film as well. I would also say this is one of Ryan Reynolds best hit performances.
Like the best family movies, The Adam Project exists at more than one level. The difference here is that the levels aren’t jokes that kids won’t get, and actions that will leave adults cold. Instead, One Level is a pretty fun sci-fi flick. The Other is one of the most memorable family live-action movies in many years.
I didn’t expect to write them as last words, but what a pleasure to be able to do so: The Adam Project is really quite special.
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