When a new movie comes out starring blockbuster darling Ryan Reynolds, it’s not difficult to anticipate, more or less, what it is you’re gonna be watching. From the Deadpool franchise to Free Guy, Reynolds has pretty much cornered the market on clean-looking action flicks with an obnoxious protagonist and a heavy emotional undercurrent. Understandably, sometimes these movies really work, (let’s hear it for Deadpool), and sometimes they really don’t (sorry, Free Guy).
Given all that, when Netflix announced The Adam Project, the second collaboration between Reynolds and Free Guy director Shawn Levy, it was safe to assume that the movie would go one of two ways: either it would be a witty, shrewd, and entertaining action flick, or it would be a soulless, dead-eyed money-maker. I’m pleased to announce that it belongs mostly to the first category.
The Adam Project follows a charmingly aggravating 12-year-old provocateur named Adam (Walker Scobell), who is visited one night by a similarly crass, similarly-blonde 40-something-year-old, also named Adam (Reynolds). Why are the two so similar, you might ask? Well, the strange visitor is actually Adam from the future.
Older Adam originally sets out to travel back to 2018, but he accidentally crash-lands in his old backyard in the year 2022. The purpose of his mission? Find his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), and then save the future from the hands of evil time-travel scientist Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) by stopping time travel from being invented altogether. Easy enough, right? Oh, and time travel was invented by Adam’s dad, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), who died in a car crash around the year 2020.
While The Adam Project clearly boasts a compelling and intricate plot, where it really succeeds is in its robust emotional core. From the outset, the movie constructs a complex web of captivating relationships. There’s young Adam and his mom, Ellie (Jennifer Garner), who are both reeling from the death of Louis and are unsure of how to communicate their pain to one another. Struggling with his emotions, young Adam takes his grief out on Ellie, not registering the fact that she’s suffering a loss, too.
This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of mother-son dynamic, but it does set the groundwork for a gripping relationship between young and old Adam. While the latter attempts to teach the former to be kinder to Ellie, the former, in turn, tries to persuade the latter to forgive Louis for being absent. These earnest domestic rapports grant the time-travel genre a fresh new outlook. Instead of being a movie about the minutiae of going back in time, The Adam Project embraces themes of grief, forgiveness, and regret head-on. Through that, it considers the age-old question of how would we do things differently if given a second chance.
A lot of the emotional undertones of The Adam Project are bolstered by its strong performances. Scobell miraculously manages to be a smart-ass middle-schooler while still remaining effortlessly likable and sympathetic. Even more astounding, though, is that he brings the emotional maturity of an adult to his performance. When he discusses his dad, for example, his eyes flicker with a subtle mix of frustration and longing.
Reynolds plays off of Scobell remarkably. In recent years, Reynolds’ obnoxious troublemaker schtick has begun to feel a little old. But in The Adam Project, it really works. As it turns out, a man bickering with his goofy younger self is the perfect application of this act, and, throughout the movie, Reynolds’ delivery is consistently genuinely funny.
Unsurprisingly, Garner also brings a lot of soul to The Adam Project, despite not being given a whole lot to do besides looking wistfully through doorways and scolding Adam for getting suspended (again!). Seeing the concerned-mother character being allowed a little more depth this time would have been a welcome surprise, but unfortunately, that’s not in the cards for poor Ellie. A similar problem arises in the writing of Maya, which sadly jams the wonderful Keener into the suffocating archetype of a cliched villain.
Nonetheless, The Adam Project succeeds as an emotional investigation of the psychological implications of going back in time and unexpectedly getting the chance to talk with your younger self. The problem is, Levy doesn’t seem to have understood that’s what he and writers Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin had come across when developing the project – or perhaps they simply didn’t completely trust that these psychological elements would be enough to satisfy viewers.
As a result, the movie’s intriguing interpersonal relationships are intercut with sterile action sequences that have graphics that move lifelessly and look like they’ve been ripped straight from a video game. These scenes are jarring when juxtaposed with a conversation between old and young Adam about the importance of kindness, for example, or Louis meeting an older version of his son.
And this isn’t to say that the action-packed storylines in The Adam Project should have been eliminated. Rather, Levy should have either pared them down to favor the sentimental stuff or dirtied up the graphics to make those sequences feel a little less soulless. Still, the movie’s emotional edge, paired with its agile performances, justifies the bountiful number of shootouts and gives enough of a reason to conclude that another Levy-Reynolds collaboration wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.
The Adam Project releases on Netflix on March 11th.