One of the very worst things you can call any story is “derivative”, a casually poisonous accusation that inevitably coats the object of the derision in colours both inspired and cliched.
But as with anything, it’s not the fact that the cliches and tropes are there in abundance that is the issue, since all storytelling is to some extent a gathering together of the well-worn and done-before, but what it is you do with them and how original, and this is crucial, your assembling of them into some engagingly new, or at least new enough.
The Adam Project, the latest collaboration from everyone’s favourite wisecracking Canadian, Ryan Reynolds, and Shawn Levy, which previously gave us the unexpectedly surprising and heartfelt delights of Free Guy, is, without a doubt an agglomeration of something sci-fi, something Spielberg, something time travel-y and something existentially raw (true it does not rhyme but that, unlike in the wedding ditty, is not the point here).
Not so much assembled by committee, although the screenplay is attributed to four people – Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin – The Adam Project is a bringing together of all kinds of elements from a raft of ’80s and ’90s family-friendly, sci-fi flicks with a little Bond villain-lite thrown in, and a headily affecting Spielbergian eye on the brokenness of a life lost to the immediate aftermath of grief.
But here’s the thing – that doesn’t slow down the film one bit.
The Adam Project is set in 2022, 28 years before humanity masters the technology of time travel which sends an adult Adam Reed (Ryan Reynolds) hurtling back to 2022 to fix something gone awry in the timeline, in defiance of the higher-ups back home who are none too pleased to see him “steal” his bio-marked time travel jet.
The movie begins with an awe-inspiring bang high above the bluey swirls of Earth as jets dive in and out of the firing line of each other, a sign that here is a sci-fi story writ large that is going to go big on effects, on blockbuster awesomeness and on some stonking big emotional issues.
To be fair, that last one isn’t guaranteed at that point since the film could quite have gone all-spectacle-no-heart but with an eye firmly on the fact that every good blockbuster worth its good vs. evil salt needs some huge emotional stakes upon to hang its visceral action, The Adam Project very quickly goes deep and hard into vintage Spielberg territory when 40-year-old Adam meets 12-year-old Adam one night when as lukc would have it the younger version is home alone.
Narrative convenience all but demands that young Adam and his mum, Ellie (Jennifer Garner), still mourning the death of his dad and her husband, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), live in a quiet house set against forest (think E.T. and you’re close to the look) where the neighbours are hard of hearing or think nothing of loud crashy, bangy sounds in the early evening.
And so it is in The Adam Project, which draws with alacrity and entertaining skill upon tropes which make the coming together of Adam the older (ATO) and Adam the younger (ATY) feel natural and to happen even if any normal universe, it actually never would, kicks off a story which sees the fate of the future, as always, resting in the hands of actions taken by people in the present.
It’s all very much a ticking of the time travel genre boxes, and yes, there is talk of multiverses and parallel versions of people and altered timelines as indeed there must be, but The Adam Project has so much fun and with so much heart so early with these building blocks that you are happy to let go wherever the chronological-powered jet will happen.
Which, as it turns out, are some very cool places, and times, including meeting up with ATO and ATY’s dead dad Louis which as you can imagine is both very emotional and pretty damn entertaining.
Somehow The Adam Project gets away with being both, fashioning a narrative sensibility that is equal parts headily escapist gee whiz, hit-you-in-the-heart emotional and searingly emotional, its insightful eyes on what grief can do to a person and a family and how an inadvertent rupturing of familial closeness can take place even when that’s the last thing you intend.
It’s not exactly an intense session with a therapist but the it doesn’t have to be; in amongst all the ducking and dodging, the mystery-solving and the stopping of a villain, played with exasperated tenacity by Catherine Keener (de-aged and not), The Adam Project is as much concerned with repairing damage done to Adam’s collective sense of self, his family post-Louis’s death and getting to the bottom of some pretty weighty personal life choice consequences that come form more grief than any 12-year-old is adequately equipped to handle.
As a brilliantly exuberant adventure to save the future, The Adam Project is a joyous piece of fun, buoyed considerably the witty repartee between ATY and ATO, who believably represent the idea that they are one and the same person, just separated by almost three decades.
The quips, oneliners and witty putdowns fly fast and free, some of them juvenile (they’re kind of weird time travel siblings after all) and some of them poignantly incisive, and they are a blast to watch with the chemistry between the two actors a real delight, but they really come alive because the film never once forgets the pain and loss elephant sitting clearly in sight in the figurative room.
The Adams are hurting, and while ATO is there to rescue someone and fix things good and proper as every hero from a bright, shiny (or not) time travelling future is wont to do, The Adam Project is kind of, in the best tradition of all family-friendly blockbusters, there to put a hand on your heart, squeeze heartily and get you laying on a couch blabbing out all your great regrets and grief about life in one taut, tight, thrilling package.
Sure there’s a big massive time paradox to fix, and awe-inspiring tech with which to fix it, and it’s big, bold and utterly brilliant, but at its heart, one fashioned with some real originality and a distinct sense of fun, its about how one broken boy meets his still-broken, and a little bit twisted by time older self, and fixes what ails him in ways that will go a long way to mending your own broken heart in ways you didn’t know you needed.