Monday, March 14, 2022

Movie Review: The Adam Project

The Adam Project blends goofy sci-fi action with a serious exploration of grief and trauma, and it probably should have just stuck with the goofy stuff. That's not to say the drama is particularly bad, but even at its best it's sort of a buzzkill. The comedy mostly works, the action is pretty good, the genre stuff is solid... the serious stuff is a bit boring. Not excruciatingly so, but it just doesn't connect enough to compensate for taking time and attention away from the fun, adventurous stuff going on.

And I think it needs stressing: the fun stuff is actually quite a lot of fun. It's not particularly original or abnormally well done, but for a B-grade PG-13 kid's flick, it's significantly better than it has to be. The Adam Project has a by-the-numbers feel, but that doesn't stop the stuff that works from being fun, even when you can see and hear the "influences."

And let's be clear: the influences are readily apparent. Even if you overlook the fact that 80% of its adult leads are Marvel alums, The Adam Project clearly yearns to be an MCU movie in general and a James Gunn movie in particular (if you wrote a computer algorithm to mimic Gunn's needle drops, I'm pretty sure it would have made the same choices). Throw in a touch of Star Wars (and maybe a little of the 2009 Trek reboot), and you've got a good idea for the style and tone. Honestly, the most baffling part of this production is that it was picked up by Netflix instead of Disney+.

As a movie, this feels hollow but still mostly good. This is disposable, derivative entertainment, but as long as you come to terms with those limitations there's a lot of fun here. A lot of the credit rests with the editing and effects work, which manages to consistently be good enough to maintain the energy. I also think the cast and director deserve credit. The characters aren't particularly complex or interesting, but they're entertaining and cool. Imagine a slick comic book, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the bulk of the film.

While I keep bringing up Marvel, I'll say the movie this most remined me of was actually Zathura (though there's a pretty big Marvel connection there via that movie's director). In addition to some shared ideas, it went for a similar tone and mostly succeeded. That said, I don't think this is nearly as good, largely because Zathura managed to integrate its emotional journey better with the genre stuff.

I should also add something about The Adam Project's overuse of references. Oh, yes, this movie is self-aware, and it wants you to know it. This was also an issue in the last movie Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds collaborated on, Free Guy, but I found it far more grating here (side note: if you haven't given Free Guy a chance yet, it's kind of great - by far the better of the two). I'm not sure how what to make of Levy signing on to direct Deadpool 3. Obviously, those meta-references are going to be far more appropriate, and it's certainly stylistically the kind of thing he's interested in. But while Deadpool 3 is a good fit for Levy, I'm not convinced he's a good fit for it: he's not an especially interesting director, and even at his best he feels like he's mimicking other filmmakers. But, hey, Free Guy was really good, so here's hoping. Deadpool 2 felt kind of generic and lacking in directorial voice, too, so there's a good chance this will at least be a lateral move.

Since I'm me, I'm going to say a little about the genre elements, particularly the time-travel stuff. The Adam Project does a good job establishing its rules quickly and effectively. That said, the third act gets a little sloppy around execution. I'm not sure I consider this a flaw, though. My guess is there were earlier drafts of the script that checked all the boxes and remained faithful to the rules and logic of the story. I'm also guessing the pacing was significantly worse in those drafts. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but they actually had the tools necessary to "resolve" the movie according to the established rules with an extra five or ten minutes of explanation and problem solving... all of which would have broken the pacing that was already strained around the dramatic resolution. Skipping ahead via generic movie magic was probably the lesser of two evils.

At the end of the day, The Adam Project is a mediocre film but a pretty good time. There's a lot to nitpick here (as I just illustrated), but let's put things in perspective: the fact this was basically okay instead of godawful feels miraculous when compared against the sort of things coming out before the MCU raised the bar. Look, I grew up in the '90s, and I can think of maybe two or three PG/PG-13 genre movies from that entire decade that can match this. The Adam Project isn't great cinema by a longshot, but for a direct-to-streaming kid's time-travel flick, it's plenty good enough.

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