It all starts with the rhythmic strumming of a guitar plucking the notes off a string before cymbals, drums, and piano join in. As then-18-year-old Steve Winwood’s voice kicks in with “Well, my temperature’s rising, and my feet on the floor; Crazy people knocking ’cause they’re wanting some more; Let me in, baby, I don’t know what you got; But you better take it easy, this place is hot,” we’re treated to an aerial show as a dog fight occurs in 2050 just outside Earth’s atmosphere. We discover it’s an act of rebellion — the why unknown, but the risks immediately clear — which sends an unknown man (Ryan Reynolds) through a wormhole into 2018. Although missing many details, this is how director Shawn Levy (Free Guy) jumpstarts his latest film, The Adam Project, and it’s the kind of opening which tells you everything you need to know about what’s to come: thrills, adventure, undeniable wonder, and serious risk. The kind of risk which family-friendly film The Adam Project shares along the same lines as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), and Flight of the Navigator (1986), pushing the bounds of the PG-13 rating in its action set pieces, character interactions, and narrative themes to feel a touch more like Timecop (1994) from time to time. In that regard, you may want to preview the film before sharing with younger audience members merely looking for a good time.
In 2050, time travel is possible. While seeking to jump backward in time, Adam (Reynolds) is wounded, lands in 2022, and is in need of a place to recover. At the same time, in 2022, 12-year-old Adam (Walker Scobell) is suspended from school for fighting, stuck at home alone while his widowed mom, Ellie (Jennifer Garner) goes out for the night. Hearing a loud noise, young Adam goes to investigate and finds his future self. Older Adam wants nothing to do with his younger self, but reluctantly takes younger Adam along on his journey when the threats of the future track him to 2018. With danger growing every moment older Adam remains in the past, both Adams must figure out a way to get along with himself if their mission will succeed.
Free Guy, the first collaboration between director Levy and actor/producer Reynolds, surprised the hell out of me last year by not only being a fun romp of a film, but possessing some really powerful ideas about identity, agency, and existence. It shouldn’t really shock me, then, that The Adam Project is equally impressive, using its science fiction/action & adventure trappings as the means to explore grief, loss, and healing. It’s played mostly as a gag having two Adams, an excuse for Reynolds to offer his now-standard smart mouth performance opposite a child actor whom, frankly, does a great job keeping up with him, go on a journey together with the expectation that older Adam will teach younger Adam how to stand up for himself against the bullies that won’t leave him alone. That’s the expectation when younger Adam gushes over older Adam’s physique and facial handsomeness. The script from Jonathan Tropper (This is Where I Leave You), T.S. Nowlin (Pacific Rim: Uprising), Jennifer Flackett (Journey to the Center of the Earth), and Mark Levin (Journey to the Center of the Earth) offers the expected, luring you in, then flips the script in a variety of ways when we least expect it. This keeps the surprises coming throughout the film, all the way through to the end. For instance, the script offers the suggestion that sometimes the muscles we put on are really armor to protect ourselves from the pain we bury deep inside. Can’t hurt anymore if we’re physically strong enough to take what life throws at us. At least, that’s the unhealthy way to look at things and the first sign that maybe our hero needs to work on himself, too (plus, maybe to stop skipping leg day).
Because it’s a time travel film, there are allusion aplenty to previous releases, like the outfit young Adam wears being a riff on Back to the Future (1985) or the less subtle “Pine Ridge Motel,” an obvious reference to the Twin Pine (and later Lone Pine) Mall where Marty and Doc are attacked. If The Adam Project were merely reference after reference, it could be fun as some nostalgia-leaning films can be, but it would lack emotional depth by relying on the films that came before instead of the characters and their needs. Wisely, the script leans on the intelligence of the characters, allowing them to skip over the old Adam/young Adam realization part, empowering it to get to the good stuff. That this film also manages to offer some clever action set pieces that delight, whether an aerial dog fight or futuristic fisticuffs, while also making sure that each aerial twist, each thrown punch, also serves to move the emotional arcs forward, is impressive. The story of Adam is one of loss (the 2022 Adam lost his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), to a car accident a year or so prior), so much of the smart mouth, the getting into fights, the reactionary behavior we see in young and old Adam are born out of this grief. Again, that’s the obvious emotional beat for the narrative to explore and it does it well, finding several natural and authentic ways to give the characters opportunities to explore their grief (good and the ugly), but it’s the manner in which the narrative structures things, allowing for little character revelations and motivation shifts that keep The Adam Project from being a rehash of a different tale.
Adding to the inventiveness of the film is the design of the tech that makes up the futuristic side. Keep in mind that, according the film’s timeline, there’s only a 28- year difference between 2050 and 2022. This means that while there’s room for creativity in the design of weapons, planes, and general tech, there’s also a consistency in the things which rarely need to advance (clothes, uniforms, etc). This allows a certain flexibility with the rules of the story, enabling Levy to get creative where necessary, that the audience can go along with (like a self-healing timeship); though it can sometimes cause a bit of under explanation where it might actually be helpful. When it comes to time travel, I don’t mind when things get explained more or less with a hand wave as wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, but it took reading the production notes to confirm what I suspected without in-film explanation: all the armored faceless bad guys whom older Adam dispatches are atomized as they are outside of their stream. This means, when one thinks about it, that rather than fighting techsapians or humanoid robots programmed to track Adam lead by a former compatriot, he’s actually killing people outside of their timeline. The visual effect is particularly cool, one of many VFX that’ll dazzle throughout, but it’s a bit of darkness within the film that gets glossed over.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of The Adam Project are the well-placed needle drops: Boston, The Spencer Davis Group, Pete Townshend, Cyndi Lauper (to name a few). What’s fascinating about these choices of tracks is that they feel more directed toward the audience watching the film than the characters themselves. Between the brief appearance of a working record player and older Adam’s 40 years of age, the songs we’re hearing are as likely songs he liked as the one’s his father, Louis, listened to. Children have a way of assigning certain songs to parents, feeling a little bit of a connection to an old memory or moment when a song comes on. I get that myself whenever I hear either Quincy Jones’s album “The Dude” or “Back on the Block” for my father or The Doobie Brothers and/or Chicago for my mother. They take me back to moments I cherish and some I might want to forget, but they are forever tied to my memories of my parents. Whatever stories we tell ourselves, however we re-write moments based on our emotions or perception, we can’t outrun how our parents made us feel or the lasting impact they have on our lives.
In a lot of ways, The Adam Project is exactly what one expects from a Levy/Reynolds project. Levy has several films under his belt where VFX were critical to crafting a believable world (Night at the Museum (2006); Real Steel (2011)) and Reynolds has basically honed a public persona as a wiseass. Both of these are core elements of this film, so your expectations will certainly be met. What the film also offers, however, is a chance to show that under his biting sarcasm and dry delivery is an actor capable of so much more. For a few shining moments, audiences can see Reynolds at his most raw since perhaps Buried (2010) or The Voices (2014). In those scenes, folks who’ve been a fan of his since Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (1998-2001) are reminded of his versatility. Being paired up with scene partners like Ruffalo, Garner, Catherine Keener (Get Out), and Zoe Saldaña (The Losers) certainly offers plenty of opportunities to play it straight/sincere or goofy wiseass, so at least there’s that to look forward to.
If I were to sum-up The Adam Project, it’s a wibbly wobbly action adventure that dabbles in nostalgia while making something entirely of its own. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it brought out a desire in me to make sure my two sons know that I love them dearly. If that doesn’t scream “success,” I’m not sure what does.
Available for streaming on Netflix March 11th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.