That the best sci-fi films have always rested on how deftly they navigated complex human emotions is a given, and it is with this frame of reference that Shawn Levy tackles his upcoming project, Netflix’s The Adam Project, streaming from March 11.
“It’s a family drama,” he says. “And the film uses spectacle and the sci-fi genre as a vehicle for emotional storytelling.” Also starring Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner and Zoe Saldaña, it has the character of Adam Reed, played by Ryan Reynolds, racing against time to fix things in the past. There are some moving realisations, when he meets his younger self using time travel, about mothers who sacrifice to no end, the nature of grief, and the things we do for love.
Going by the limited reactions to the film so far, Levy says that it’s now clearer to him that it’s the “emotionality that has stuck” the most. Incidentally, Shawn Levy, 53, was one of the co-producers on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). Apart from being the story of a linguist trying to figure out the language of mysterious aliens, it was ultimately about a single mother making sense of a fragmented past involving her daughter. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Picture that year.
“I love stories of redemption,” Levy continues, when I ask him about the nature of emotions he has always gravitated towards. “And I am very moved by the possibility of forgiveness — forgiving your parents or yourself.”
On the childhood canvas
As the film progresses beyond the quantum jumping and strange wormholes that help the characters straddle many decades, Levy uses the impulsive nature of childhood to probe a question that perhaps bothers most of us: with the renewed maturity that comes with adulthood, what if we could balance our childhood anew?
This is a question that Levy has confronted to varying degrees — humorously, intensely — in most of his works. In Netflix’s Stranger Things, which he has executive-produced and directed (two episodes each season), childhood is both an enabler of truths and the way to the playground of clumsy affairs.
“I’ve always gravitated towards the nature of identity and experience in childhood,” he explains. “It’s probably because my own childhood was far from ideal because I feel it ended earlier than it should have. I’m constantly trying to recapture a certain sense of joy and wonder in the many childhoods I present on the screen.”
Levy says that “nobody’s history is perfect” and an important step of growing up is “accepting those past imperfections” and even forgiving them. This is an overarching sentiment that dictates The Adam Project, particularly through the character of Adam Reed – jaded, bruised and yet in love.
The sweet hint of nostalgia and old-school filmmaking is something Reynolds gravitated towards too. He told The Hollywood Reporter that the film is “a little bit old-fashioned with an ’80s wish-fulfilment, meaning something amazing or even supernatural happens to a kid but he’s home by dinner, and his parents have no clue. It’s a type of old-school, warm and nostalgic filmmaking that I love.”
Absolute power and villains
How do you go about constructing the villain in a sci-film that ultimately rests on its human themes? The character of Maya Sorain, played by Catherine Keener, will do anything it takes to assert her dominance on “time” — a resource of great importance in the film. “Her character is an exploration of whether humanity is truly capable of being entrusted with absolute power. And the answer, at least in this film, is that no one should be trusted with that degree of power,” Levy says.
The debilitating crisis globally — marked by wars, impulsive world leaders and a gradual deterioration of trust in multilateral institutions — have the common denominator of the failure of absolute power running through them. “Sadly, as we’re seeing in our world, people who are entrusted to have massive power, almost always abuse it. It’s profoundly disappointing. But it makes for a very delicious on-screen movie villain,” he observes.
Evidently, the mood at the film’s premiere in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war was bittersweet for both Levy and his team. On February 26, Ryan Reynolds announced that he and his wife Blake Lively would match up to $1 million in donations to help Ukrainian refugees through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In a recent interview with Variety, Reynolds said that “it’s hard not to elicit enormous empathy to the idea that families big and small are being told they have to flee their homes they’ve had their whole lives in a matter of minutes”.
Netflix, for its part, has suspended its service in Russia and has also halted the production of four upcoming Russian originals. Additionally, it also refused to carry 20 Russian free-to-air propaganda channels that it was previously mandated to host under Russian law.
The Adam Project streams on March 11 on Netflix.