Premise: A time-traveling pilot teams up with his younger self and his late father to come to terms with his past while saving the future.
The Adam Project reunites Free Guy director Shawn Levy with Ryan Reynolds for a sci-fi/action family film with time travel and a dose of emotional catharsis at its core. It utilizes its time travel conceit to tell a generational story of father and son in a manner reminiscent of 2000’s Frequency with sharp dialogue and strong chemistry among the three leads. Though it is not without its shortcomings, The Adam Project carries a surprisingly poignant drama within its genre conventions.
In 2050, pilot Adam Reed steals a ship to travel back to 2018 but mistakenly ends up in 2022 where he meets and mentors his 13 year old self (Walker Scobell). Young Adam is a victim of bullying while also grieving the sudden loss of his father (Mark Ruffalo) a year before. Meanwhile, middle aged Adam is searching for his wife Laura (Zoe Saldana), who disappeared under conspiratorial circumstances that are left by the wayside along with most of her characterization, unfortunately. In fact, her arc in the film is to facilitate the two Adams’ reunion with their father in 2018 and advance the story rather than explore the depth of her relationship with Adam.
Aside from severely undeserving Saldana’s character, another big stumbling point for The Adam Project is the way it under-develops the state of the world in 2050. The crux of the plot rests on the two Adams (along with their time travel inventing deceased dad, Louis) preventing the invention of time travel. When Young Adam asks his future self if 2050 is really so bad, Reynolds’ Adam’s response is a throwaway, “We’ve seen Terminator, right? It’s worse than that.” Adding to that vagueness, the film opens in medias res with Adam having already commandeered the ship and suffering from a gunshot wound. The film goes on to haphazardly explain his motivation for traveling back in time, and then further disclosing to us through blink and you’ll miss it dialogue how he ended up with the gunshot wound. The film also shoehorns in a nemesis for Adam to confront in the film’s big showdown at the end that ultimately lacks any real depth.
Those lapses in plotting damage what could be a more satisfying sci-fi adventure. However, when The Adam Project works, it works much better than expected thanks to the chemistry of Reynolds and newcomer Scobell. Throughout his career, Ryan Reynolds has cultivated a unique sarcasm-centric persona that (post Deadpool and Deadpool 2) is usually misused or underwritten for him. In last year’s Free Guy, for example, his casual sarcasm and slight self-aware shtick worked against a story in which he plays an oblivious non-playable video game character. Here however, his talents (if slight typecasting) are used to strengthen the grief story and reconciliation between father and son.
By far the best thing The Adam Project has going for it is the chemistry between Adam and his younger self and how the pair explore their grief for their father at different stages of their own life. Young Adam, who has the memory of their father much more fresh in his mind, helps his future self remember what their father meant to them. Likewise, Adam helps his younger self confront the way he treats their mother (Jennifer Garner) in the aftermath of their father’s death. The film even melds Reynolds’ brand of sarcastic humor into wildly entertaining banter between the two Adams while also using it as a defense mechanism for them to shield their grief and regret. That level of emotional layering and catharsis is a pleasant surprise in a film that doesn’t work nearly hard enough to develop its actual plot.
The Adam Project furthers the cathartic elements with the somewhat late addition of Mark Ruffalo as the Adams’ father. When the three are on screen together, it is a delight as they play off each other with a cautious tenderness formed by the established grief and regret the two Adams feel at their respective stages of life. The repartee among the Adams and their father comes close to making up for the weaknesses in plot that occasionally veer into generic genre fare.
Those generic genre conventions and underdeveloped narrative are what ultimately holds The Adam Project back from being a strong sci-fi action drama. Although it doesn’t break any new ground in the realm of time travel fiction, The Adam Project does succeed in showcasing Ryan Reynolds’ trademark sarcastic wit in a manner that’s not overbearing or out of place. It also serves as a showcase for talented newcomer Walker Scobell, who is very comfortable dishing out as much banter and wit as he can take. Though it can be rote at times (and downright bad in some places), The Adam Project manages to be a surprisingly good experience with an unexpected amount of heart.
The Adam Project premieres March 11th exclusively on Netflix.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.