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The Adam Project Backs Its Whizzy Sci-Fi With Big Compassion

Image by Doane Gregory for Netflix

Last year in this review space covering Free Guy, this very writer sang the praises of Ryan Reynolds and his “commitment to the bit” in all facets of his coolness on-screen. Ryan’s personality bleeds into his roles, and he has levied that successfully across genres. It’s a winsome energy level that does not seem to dissipate, which begs two questions. When and how can one tell the moments to take Ryan Reynolds seriously where he’s not all jokes? With great surprise, the Netflix sci-fi actioner The Adam Project shows off renewed dimensions to the actor’s appeal that answers those two inquiries.

In The Adam Project, opening March 11th, Reynolds reteams as a producer and star with Free Guy director Shawn Levy to play Adam Reed, an experienced and cavalier time travel pilot from the year 2050. Wounded and desperate to escape his pursuers and the next refrain of “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group (one a few good picks of a catchy soundtrack), Adam jumps back in time in an effort to find his missing wife and fellow pilot Laura (Zoe Saldana) and investigate nefarious corporate changes made by science magnate Maya Sorian (a scowling Catherine Keener) in the past that have affected his present. His goal was to arrive in 2016 where Laura was last seen, but lands instead four years later in 2022.

A man looks up in woods away from a boy clutching his pendant.
Image by Doane Gregory for Netflix

Nursing his injuries and the necessary time for his ship to repair, Adam finds his old Pacific Northwest house and his mop-headed and snarky 12-year-old self, played by the scene-stealing Walker Scobell in his film debut. At this earlier part of his life, the small-for-his-age Adam was grieving the loss of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), tussling in a losing fashion with school bullies, and overall giving his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) a bear of a time. The younger Adam quickly surmises the mirrored identity of the ripped and sarcastic man he sees before him, and now the conundrum thickens in adventurous, dramatic, and humorous fashion.

Before this initial sequence transpired, The Adam Project opened to say “Time travel exists. You just don’t know it yet.” Like the majority of time travel movies, this one, written by Banshee creator Jonathan Tropper, The Maze Runner series screenwriter T.S. Nowlin, and the Nim’s Island team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, spends plenty of exposition time trickling out its so-called rules while both nodding and dispelling familiar pop culture tropes that came before it to fit its desired machinations. Levy’s film, an original world of its own intellectual property and not some comic or YA novel, plants roots in “fixed times” where characters really belong and the notion of “reconciled” memories that come when the past catches up to those escaped from the future.

A teen boy turns around to look behind him.
Image by Doane Gregory for Netflix

Much of those plot boundaries and hurdles count as the gobbledygook portion of the movie where the science fiction elements show off. The special effects of chasing spacecrafts and futuristic combat weapons supervised by Alessandro Ongaro (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) have a definite cool factor, amplified by two quippy Adams that love using them and dispensing their adversaries with panache. Rob Simonsen’s score is nothing particularly special, but it suits the shiny grandeur in play.

In other movies of this type, the whizzy sci-fi often becomes the place where all money, effort, and speed was spent, shortchanging any balance of patience to highlight characters or create tangible emotions. Going back to the likes of Real Steel, Date Night, the Night at the Museum series, and Free Guy on his resume, Shawn Levy has established a proven forte at producing shining and human sources of wonder next to the dashing delights. He’s made another crowd-pleasing and heart-filling winner here with The Adam Project. 

A man puts his arm around his wife.
Image by Doane Gregory for Netflix

This movie’s combination of frolic and feels accentuates the innate curiosity that comes from time travel movies. Audiences love projecting themselves into scenarios like this one. Levy and company frame them with that aforementioned “you just don’t know it” kind of statements from both the kid’s perspective and the adults’. How you would answer those dares of what information you would want to know about the future, what fixes you would try, or what you would do or say to key people if given the chance to go back informs and cements your investment in this kind of movie.

Normally, Ryan’s main gear is a disarming brand of nerdy sexiness. In The Adam Project, that portion of his charm is sidelined, giving way to the longing love of a man who’s lost a spouse and the heavy regret of a grown son remembering the boy he was that wronged his mother more than he should have. Men do not lose their soul mates and boys always come back for their mamas. No matter the man-of-action moments shot by Tobias A. Schliessler (Beauty and the Beast, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) that flex his muscles, his doubly broken heart (tripled, if you play the deceased father card as well) is fixated on finding corrective healing, even if it means destroying time.

A teenage boy hugs his smiling mother from behind.
Image by Doane Gregory for Netflix

Reynolds pours his heart out in a pair of key scenes for each leading lady. The first is a reserved one with Garner pretending to play a wise and comforting stranger sharing parental lament in a bar. The movie slows down to give Adam Reed a key moment to reconnect with shared grief. The second is an intense heat-of-the-moment decision point with Saldana that crushes him and all of his exhausted effort in finding her again. Viewers may find themselves fighting back tears watching the elder Adam Reed confront perilous fates he can and cannot change with Laura and Ellie.

From these sensational emotions and the relatable wish fulfillment in the premise is where Ryan Reynolds brings himself to another place. His rapid fire humor was never going to be absent in The Adam Project, as evident by the ball-busting hot potato game of jokes he shares with Scobell and Ruffalo at many points in the movie. Loyal fans get plenty of those playful rewards from the Canadian megastar. The real surprise is his character’s underlying compassion that brims to the surface around the two important women in his life and the father he missed. What could have been disposable action in a glamor project becomes something that sticks more than you realize.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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