Where some might single out the trashy heist caper Red Notice as the premium example this year of a star-powered, overpriced Netflix nothing, I’m looking straight down the barrel at The Adam Project.
This time-travel family bonding adventure has designs on your soul, will try very hard to make you cry, and if you’re especially unlucky, may trigger the allergic reaction I had to it: a creeping rash of profound irritability which prickled its way steadily over me from head to toe. There’s almost nothing the film does well, but that doesn’t stop it donning a winner’s smirk while it copies every 1980s science fiction smash you’ve ever seen.
Both Red Notice and The Adam Project happen to be vehicles for Ryan Reynolds, such a bankable action-comedian at this point he’s in danger of becoming all* smirk. His talents for shouldering this stuff with sarcastic warmth are obvious, but you wish he’d stop.
His character, Adam Reed, starts off as a freedom fighter of the future in 2050 (hello, The Terminator), who hijacks a spacecraft to go back in time. His 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell), who is living in Spielberg-y suburbia in 2022, must be brought up to speed and is whisked along to stop a chain of events leading to global destruction.
This long-in-development script is credited to four writers, but no one managed to inject any sense, plotwise, into Younger Adam being enlisted as Older Adam’s sidekick: it’s one of those “this is what we’re doing, deal with it” concepts we just have to take on faith.
It doesn’t help that director Shawn Levy, who scored a shiny hit with Reynolds in Free Guy, reverts to his Cheaper By the Dozen auteur mode here, which is to say, turning all child actors into wise-cracking, proto-Reynoldsian japesters whose phoney precocity drives you insane.
The kid’s mum (a wasted Jennifer Garner) is having to manage on her own (hi there, Dee Wallace in E.T.), following the natural death of his physics lecturer father (an understandably grumpy Mark Ruffalo) – but all is not lost, because a mini-hop back to 2018 lets us put in a great big stint of father-son bonding time before daddy kicks the bucket.
Father and son x2, that is: three-way hugs between Ruffalo, Reynolds and Scobell await in the most ickily tear-jerking, pass-the-baseball-mitt way you might conceive. Back to the Future did all this stuff with skill and grace, whereas The Adam Project manages to feel like an insult to anyone with a late family member. Adam never becomes more than a quip delivery system unto himself, and the other characters are good for nothing except geeing up the audience for an ugly cry.
Theoretically, this might boot us onto the side of the villains (corporate overlords of the future, don’t ask) who want to blow this lot (including Zoe Saldaña as some kind of tragic warrior babe) to kingdom come. But Catherine Keener is so bizarrely cast as boss baddie Maya Sorian, who has storm troopers at her disposal and looks completely absurd sitting in star-fighter cockpits, that you don’t really fancy being on her team, either.
At its incredibly limited best, The Adam Project is coasting along two-star-ishly as a derivative popcorn flick for a rainy weekend, but the big climax in a tech facility is such a botched horrorshow it tips the whole thing into the zone of outright atrocity.
While pub-rock pounds and the camera judders around some kind of crummy particle accelerator, you have Keener, and also a disastrously de-aged Younger Keener standing next to her, yelling “get me that hard drive!”, while light sabers get flung around for good measure, Reynolds and Scobell take turns pulverising goons in effects shots well past their sell-by date, and Ruffalo manfully clings on to a pair of flimsy PC monitors pretending they mean something.
You could hardly parody the payoff of a science-babbling Marvel blockbuster (Antman or Dr Strange, say) with more withering amateurishness. Watching Netflix do their very worst Marvel impression here (using four MCU actors, to boot) prompts despair for the very concept of dumb fun.