In The Adam Project, Ryan Reynolds becomes his own worst critic by travelling back in time to berate himself. Well, that isn’t exactly why he jumps through a worm-hole to find his younger self at the start of the science fiction movie, but it’s what he spends much of the Netflix film doing.
His second collaboration with director Shawn Levy after last year’s action movie Free Guy, The Adam Project is another exercise in Reynolds disrupting the fabric of reality. In 2050, we’re able to jump around time and space, and Adam Reed (Reynolds), has gone rogue, illegally traipsing through a portal. He lands in 2022 to be discovered by the Adam (Walker Scobell) of 28 years prior, who can hardly believe how cool and buff he becomes.
Older Adam needs young Adam’s help to right some timey-wimey wrongs – his partner disappeared on a mission and he wants to find her. On top of that, time-travel hasn’t done humanity much good, and Adam’s family is part of where it all goes pear-shaped. Armed with cynical one-liners and some nifty tech, the two get to rewriting history in an adventure movie that has more to say in its quieter moments than its cookie-cutter laser fights.
The ’80s movies‘ influences are abundant. Young Adam’s discovery of his older self, and the revelation there’s now a time jet in his backyard, plays like a crossover between ET the Extra-Terrestrial and Flight of the Navigator. Comedy and charm spring from Scobell’s doe-eyed awe at what lays before him, a far cry from the misery of school bullying.
They still share a wisecracking defence mechanism, though older Adam is now exhausted at himself. He scolds younger Adam for how they speak to their mother, and explains that having the physique of a Hollywood star hasn’t done much to soothe their regrets in life. Only one thing really did: Laura, a classmate with whom he fell in love, played by Zoe Saldana.
Reynolds is convincing as an icy version of himself, full of scorn for the kind of person he was as a child, and who he grew up to be. It’s all latent projection, based on resentment towards his late father, his inability to understand his mother’s grief, and the local bullies that he never quite got the courage to stand up to. Some of the finer moments draw from this by having older Adam be the one who finally gives young Adam the help and encouragement he needs.
Our two Adams keep a good rhythm, crosschecking each other with jibes, and the occasional simultaneous zinger. Scobell is amicable as the younger Reynolds, an introverted nerd who gets rightly excited at each near-death experience and close encounter. When police from 2050 arrive, young Adam gets to watch his older self use what’s practically a lightsaber to cut through some faceless armoured timecops from antagonist Maya (Catherine Keener), and engage in a chase using their time planes.
It’s chaotic wish fulfilment in the vein of Star Kid and Explorers, and Levy directs with an eye towards feeling the motion. The Adams rotate around the screen when doing a 360 from the cockpit, and the camera floats around fights, as if struggling to absorb every punch and folly. An orange disappearing effect on the future police adds colour, but takes away from the sense of danger.
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The enemies have no substance, and offer little threat, least of all to someone played by Ryan Reynolds. Ironically, it’s the sort of thing Free Guy would’ve satirised, a comment on the frivolousness of death in videogames. This is straight-faced and lesser for it, a cinematographic choice that undercuts the critique of Reynolds’s persona.
In lecturing his younger self, there’s a sense that The Adam Project is partially Reynolds trying to reconcile who he is now, with some of his previous work. Films like Van Wilder and Just Friends haven’t aged the best, perpetuating retrograde ideas on gender and romance. There’s a rare vulnerability in Reynolds’s bitterness that doesn’t get enough screen time to begin with, before being dashed entirely by his fighting talents.
This is disappointing because The Adam Project is better when it settles as a drama movie. Mark Ruffalo plays the Adams’ dad, Louis, a physics scientist whose discovery of time travel is the beginning of the end, and Jennifer Garner is their mom, Ellie. Scenes involving them are sweet and absorbing, Levy capturing the wave of emotions inherent to getting to say goodbye or deliver that last hug.
Saldana does her best with the limited time she has to make her and Reynolds’s relationship seem passionate. She and Keener’s roles are squeezed down to serve the plot as much as possible, perhaps caught in the mix between the five credited writers. Despite this, Keener delivers a darkly riveting personal scene that’s one of the most memorable.
That, too, gets pushed aside for an all too neat finale. A good rule for time travel movies is to not think about them too much; The Adam Project beckons us to enjoy what’s in front of us, and have a little faith in the universe. If only the film had more faith in itself.
The Adam Project is on Netflix March 11.
The Adam Project review
Ryan Reynolds-led sci-fi movie is a decent homage to cult favourites that doesn’t know its own strengths