With Free Guy, director Shawn Levy and star Ryan Reynolds essentially delivered a slightly different spin on Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. For their follow-up together, The Adam Project, they’ve gone back further and incorporated more. Hints of E.T., Back to the Future, and even Always pervade this new Netflix feature, along with nods to The Last Starfighter. Levy’s a master of repurposing; previously known for remakes like Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther, and Real Steel (from a Twilight Zone episode), he’s now primarily known as executive producer of Stranger Things, the tribute to everything that ’80s kids remember.
If Netflix asked for more of the same in his latest, he certainly gave it. And did so efficiently: Stranger Things can make for a lengthy viewing commitment, but The Adam Project requires less than an hour and a half. It might seem slightly unrealistic that most of the characters in it immediately accept the high-concept premise, but it saves a lot of needless time and frustration. Reynolds plays exasperated hilariously well, but extra scenes of him yelling at someone who won’t believe in time travel don’t feel needed.
Said premise, in a nutshell: Reynolds plays Adam, a pilot from the future who came back to the past in a super space-plane to unravel a mystery. Things went awry, he and his plane got shot, and he’s in the wrong time. It’s the right place, however, to run across his 12 year-old self. And as bad as time paradoxes may be for protagonists, they’re great for the movie. Because newcomer Walker Scobell, as young Adam, is a tremendous find.
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In a movie loaded with A-listers — Reynolds, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, and Catherine Keener — it’s Scobell’s show. And he’s not just the best older-actor-impersonator since Troy Gentile twice played young Jack Black. He’s a bona fide lead who makes the movie.
A Deadpool fan already, Scobell prepared for the role by delivering all of Reynolds’ lines from Deadpool 2, and he has the delivery and comic timing down. Reynolds himself mostly seems directed to play a sad man here, though of course he can’t resist reverting occasionally to sassy form. Especially with Scobell goading him into one-upmanship contests. But it gives the star more freedom to lean into his Kyle Reese-from-Terminator tragic hero part, knowing the Reynolds-y jokes remain, and in good hands.
The special effects look expensive and indulgent, with decloaking space planes and bad guys dematerializing into polka-pixels every time they die. Perhaps to compensate, the setting and cast are kept relatively small. Besides the principals, there aren’t many other characters. And locations stay relatively confined to the coast, forest, a coastal forest, and (probably) a large greenscreen soundstage. Considering this simplicity and straightforwardness, the story’s easy to grasp and get into, even if its time travel rules make no consistent sense at all.
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Levy, however, lays the sentiment on a bit thick at times. Modern Adam has lost his father, while future Adam has no mother either. So while the fate of the world is at stake, there’s a fair bit of crying and hugging and reassuring going on, especially towards the end. Spielberg relished such things as well, and one can argue that the world needs more empathy right now. The movie’s villain very specifically lost it at a certain point. Viewers with one or more dead parents IRL, be forewarned: this will push your buttons.
But it also leads to at least one great scene between Reynolds’ Adam and Garner as his mom. Viewers may expect a conversation between the two at a bar to veer into McFly-level incest territory, but instead, it’s merely an empathetic talk about grief and how parents process differently from — and the same as — children. It feels like easier energy for Reynolds to tap into than in scenes with Saldana.
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While the filmmakers would undoubtedly tell you these moments are the heart of the movie, they really aren’t. The Adam Project thrives on the central conceit of a kid and his older self sassing each other, each with a keen sense of where the other’s weaknesses lie. All while sci-fi soldiers from the future try to capture or kill them. Ryan Reynolds is a natural, but not since Anna Faris has he found such a worthy adversary in verbal sparring. If Kevin Feige isn’t already pushing for Scobell to actually play young Wade Wilson in future flashback scenes, his instincts may need recalibrating. No doubt the young star will blaze a unique path at some point, but for now, he owns this very specific niche.
Not every viewer will cry. Most should laugh. And with its pared down plot and runtime, very few will feel time wasting. As the movie reminds us, that is our most precious commodity, after all.
The Adam Project debuts Friday, March 11, on Netflix.
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