Free Guy director Shawn Levy might be one of the greatest pop-action visual stylists working today, if only he could stop trying so hard to be cute. It’s fitting that he has found his muse in Ryan Reynolds, the Redditor’s Tom Hanks.
In Free Guy, Levy gave us a broad high-concept about what-if-the-NPCs-in-Fortnite-were-real, which engaged almost instantly and even groped toward profundity before dissolving into an orgy of nauseating tie-ins. In its final moments, Guy, played by Ryan Reynolds, discovers a Captain America shield and squeals fanboyishly about having a Star Wars lightsaber — as if Levy had belatedly realized that he could use any Disney or Marvel tie-in (thanks to Disney having bought 20th Century Fox, the company that produced Free Guy) and went overboard with it, like Homer Simpson with the star wipe.
Free Guy was four-fifths, maybe even seven-eighths of a good movie, that final embarrassing spectacle of corporate toadying aside, and many of us were hoping that Levy had gotten all that out of his system. After seeing his latest, The Adam Project, which opens on Netflix this week, I’m here to tell you… he has not.
Levy remains a frustratingly talented composer of visual action, the likes of which we maybe haven’t seen since vintage Spielberg or Zemeckis. Levy just can’t stop shitting “Easter eggs” all over every scene. And I mean “Easter eggs” in internet parlance: those meta-textual references to other movies the most obnoxious viewers can pat themselves on the back for recognizing. Because that’s what movies are, right? A forum to reward one’s self for having seen other movies!
If the premise of Ad Astra was “What if you had to go to space to kill your dad,” The Adam Project poses the less bellicose, “What if you had to go back in time to save your dad?”
Any time anyone goes to space or back in time in a movie, it almost always has to do with saving, killing, avenging, or proving one’s self to the protagonist’s dad. Naturally, The Adam Project plays like someone put Back To The Future, Frequency, and Guardians Of The Galaxy into a narrative blender, with an opening scene proclaiming “time travel exists, you just don’t know it yet,” leading into a spaceship dog fight set to a “Gimme Some Lovin'” needle drop. It’s a toe-tapper, and Levy excels at this kind of upbeat, PG-friendly action rendered in major key. It looks great, and you can tell what’s happening — a bar most action movies fail to clear these days, including the most recent one, The Batman.
Ryan Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a 2050 Air Force pilot fleeing the future in a stolen jet. We sort of know what we’re going to get with a Ryan Reynolds vehicle these days — winky asides, copious pop culture references, and an overwhelming air of knowing smarm. Reynolds has become the ideal mouthpiece for this style, which has been referred to variously as Buffy speak, soy dialogue (an adaptation of “soy face“), and probably 100 other names invoking Joss Whedon, post-modernism or Tumblr. Suffice it to say, you know it when you hear it. (“Well… that just happened…”).
After a suitably glib exchange with his threatening commanding officer, played by Catherine Keener, Adam zaps open a wormhole and crash lands in 2022, at his own house, in Rainier, Washington. 2022 Adam is 12 years old, played by Walker Scobell, who has a constantly shiny bottom lip for some reason. Kid Adam is tiny for his age, lives with his widowed mom (Jennifer Garner) inside what appears to be a Thomas Kinkade painting, and is always getting beat up by bullies on account of his smart mouth.
“I’m gonna enjoy this,” says the thuggish Ray (Braxton Bjerken), cocking back a fist.
“‘I’m gonna enjoy this?'” mocks Adam. “Who talks like that? Did you buy, like, a bully starter kit on Amazon or something?”
Yes, the trouble with casting Ryan Reynolds in a time travel movie is that you have to make a little kid do a Ryan Reynolds impression. And the trouble with this kind of dialogue is not that it’s self-referential so much as kind of self-defeating. Having one of your characters ask another “who talks like that?!” is a bit like the screenwriters questioning themselves out loud. Who talks like that? Your characters, apparently!
Whether you find that kind of transparency relatable (we all beat ourselves up from time to time, don’t we?), tedious (quit waffling and get to the point!), or lazy (why not just write something not corny rather than having your characters acknowledge the corniness of it?) is somewhat subjective.
For me, I found The Adam Project‘s self-referencing forgivable (or maybe just inevitable, given the people involved), and its constant references to other movies… less so. Young Adam asks older Adam, of his magic staff thingy (whose properties are never really explained), “is that a lightsaber?”
When Young Adam jumps off a high thing and lands like a tripod, he says “superhero landing!” to no one in particular. My question: Why? Were the implied references not obvious enough?
Adult Adam has returned to 2022, it turns out, in search of his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), a fellow time-traveling pilot who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When Adam gets chased through a mossy forest by bad guys on hoverboards/gliders (choose your own reference!), it looks unmistakably like Return of the Jedi. When Laura and Adam decide that they may have to part, possibly forever, for the good of the universe, her explanation of why it’s going to be okay sounds a lot like “Don’t you remember Cloud Atlas?”
When Kid Adam asks Adult Adam whether 2050 is really so bad that it warrants these extreme measures to correct it, Adult Adam asks, “You remember Terminator? 2050 makes Terminator look like a daydream.”
My problem with all these name drops isn’t that they acknowledge the existence of movies in the Project Adam universe (hey, we also like movies!), it’s that they tend to reduce rather than to expand. They’re Band-Aids; shortcuts to understanding. What is the future like? Well, it’s like Terminator. That’s more of a barrier, a conversation stopper rather than a conversation starter. The Adam Project is a patchwork quilt of these references, and not incorporated beautifully into some whole, but crude, utilitarian things meant to cover some holes.
That’s a shame, because dammit, Shawn Levy is one of the few directors out there who can convey a sense of wonder, who can apply a genuine visual vocabulary to a family adventure PG setting. He’s constantly inspiring us to imagine something new, right before dragging us kicking and screaming back into the known. Did Spielberg have to name-drop other movies every five seconds? Okay, bad example: Spielberg referenced his pal George Lucas’s Star Wars movies in E.T. almost as often as Levy references his pal Disney’s Star Wars movies in The Adam Project. But Spielberg eventually grew out of that. …At least until he went on to direct Ready Player One, the ur-text of late 20th century nerds who could categorize and regurgitate culture without synthesizing.
The point is, Spielberg’s movies were once able to succeed in spite of their references, whereas Levy can’t seem to shake the idea that he needs these references, like pathological tics. Our own pop culture landscape in 2022 looks less like Terminator than Demolition Man, when motorists crank the volume on their stereos and sing along to commercial jingles like “Oscar Mayer Wiener.” Gee, that was swell. Remember that?