The Adam Project Spoiler Review: Scramblin' Towards Amblin

Spoilers for "The Adam Project" follow. For a non-spoiler review of "The Adam Project," head over here

Ryan Reynolds occupies a strange place in stardom. Reynolds is handsome, talented, incredibly funny, and possessed of that ineffable "it" star quality so important to being a movie star, and yet — with notable exceptions — his individual films aren't particularly beloved. Reynolds himself even seems to be aware of this, as he took several opportunities in "Deadpool" (one of the exception-that-proves-the-rule hits in Reynolds' career, which he also produced) to riff on his roles in the ill-received superhero films "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Green Lantern." Few talk about "R.I.P.D.," and the less said about "Red Notice," the better. And yet, Reynolds continues — to this critic's eye — to remain in high estimation as a movie star. His gleam never seems to tarnish. 

Reynolds seems to have found a fine collaborator in director Shawn Levy. The duo has made two films together now: "Free Guy" and "The Adam Project," and the two seem well-suited. Reynolds, it seems, seeks out high-profile, effects-based blockbusters that eschew the current model of Hollywood's marriage to IP ("X-Men," "Green Lantern," and "Detective Pikachu" notwithstanding), and Levy, after a long string of incredibly banal (but very successful) comedy films, seems to have hit his stride with high-concept, easy-to-consume, family-friendly sci-fi flicks like the unexpectedly good "Real Steel," and the two aforementioned titles. Levy, with Reynolds as his new muse, is slowly and cautiously approaching his own polite and affable, yet over-manufactured and incredibly overpriced version of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. "The Adam Project" certainly seems to have the same sort of ambition as that studio, providing a modest, gentle, semi-magical thrill about kids coming to terms with bad dads, while possessed of a fantastical premise and containing ideas just sophisticated enough for any 8-year-old to wrap their heads around.

It's a pity "The Adam Project" doesn't have anything remotely resembling an edge. Everything is clean, safe, and non-threatening to the point of it emerging as frustratingly nondescript. Even the actual violence — masked robot guards by the dozen are dispatched with ray guns and knock-off lightsabers — is safely within the realm of a Saturday morning cartoon. It's not until Mark Ruffalo appears in the film as Adam's (Reynolds) dead father — available for interaction via a time travel jet — that "Adam" begins to have any personality. 

The impressive cast

Yes, Ruffalo is in the film, and plays a significant role in "The Adam Project's" third act. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

In the present, Adam (Walker Scobell) is a mouthy 12-year-old living with his mom (Hollywood's mom, Jennifer Garner), the two of them mourning the death of his father a year earlier. Adam is picked on by generic movie bullies and seems nonplussed by the fact that his mom is dating again. Into his life crashes a new father figure in the form of ... himself. A time-traveling jet crash lands in his backyard and Adam's adult self (Reynolds) emerges to explain that time travel exists, that it wrecked the world, that he works for a time travel agency run by the evil Catherine Keener, and that he traveled back in time to stop the invention of time travel altogether. Also, like in "Avengers: Endgame," there are several lines of dialogue pertaining to the overall unimportance of causality in this universe, handily erasing any concern for timeline inconsistencies that are a regular feature of time travel stories.  

The adult Adam is also bitter, sarcastic, and cruel, and the two Adams have a few small conversational confrontations as to how the child could have become the man. It's during these quiet conversations that "The Adam Project" is the most interesting, allowing both Adams to contemplate, respectively, their dark propensity towards nihilism and their lost innocence. Like in an Amblin film, much of their pain stems from an absent father whom young Adam is still coming to terms with, and adult Adam has already become embittered over. Additionally, Adult Adam also has the emotional scars left behind by a dead wife, which is a large concept for his 12-year-old self to even wrap his head around. Because they all have access to time travel, we will meet the father (Ruffalo) and we will meet the wife (Zoe Saldaña).

Sadly, the film also contains a lot of action mayhem, and there are numerous fights with robot time travel warriors (when they are dispatched, they disappear into clouds of glitter) and chases with CGI time travel jets (large, angular machines powered by glowing blue flames) which aren't nearly as thrilling as that sounds. The action is efficient, clear, and unexciting, possessed of the slickest Hollywood special effects and very little in the way of exhilaration or visual wit. Levy's one stylistic choice was to set the action scenes to semi-recognizable pop hits from the likes of Boston, Led Zeppelin, Pete Townshend, and other bands listened to by people older than anyone in this movie. 

The plot

Because adult Adam is injured, his DNA-coded time travel jet will not start, and he must convince his 12-year-old self to help, but not before they have a run-in with the Saldaña character, who has reappeared to aid in a few fight scenes and to distract the Keener character who is hot on the Adamses tails. Saldaña's presence in the movie is so brief as to be distracting; she has maybe 6 minutes of screentime, and half of that is devoted to fight scenes and dialogue in the "let's do this" vein. 

The film's third act takes place in 2018, where Adam and Adam go to confront their father and destroy a supercollider which will soon be used to invent time travel. Ruffalo, perhaps the film's MVP, lends a shaggy, Columbo-like charm to his role (we'll get a "Columbo" film starring Ruffalo when?), filling his scenes with a warmth and humanity generally lacking from "Project"'s overall sanitation. 

In the 2018 scenes, the Keener character also confronts her younger self, with whom the older Keener has been conspiring. The younger Keener was realized with de-aging CGI which is so bad, the older Keener looks like the younger one. Also, no effort seems to have been made to ensure the two Keeners sound markedly different, making their conversations sound like a rushed table read wherein the second actor was absent. 

There is a lot of repeated dialogue throughout "The Adam Project" about the power of being a smart geek, vs. being an aggressive man of action — Ruffalo is the former, while adult Adam has become the latter — but it is a quaternary concern at best. I suspect one of the film's four credited screenwriters was perhaps attempting to work in a criticism of action films in general, pointing out that the archetypal "man of action" is typically a violent, damaged character, but none of that criticism reads in any sort of meaningful way. What we're left with is a trifling, distracting, genial, and ultimately useless film, better used to fill algorithms and pad out actors' resumes than to stick in the mind or do anything more than merely entertain. 

I wanted more.