The Adam Project is a love letter to the sci-fi action movies of the 80s and 90s while also wrestling with some severe daddy issues. In other words, it is a film released in the 21st century. However, happily, it’s not as grating as other movies of its ilk with an emotional core that propels it through its genre trappings.
Shawn Levy does a nice job of paying tribute to the movies that inspired him and other filmmakers while also visually quoting them. Levy does so in a way that does not call attention to his references, while also finding restraint in not calling attention to the fact that he made a visual reference. Even better Levy and Tobias A. Schliessler, his cameraman, find ways of naturally incorporating these references into the movie.
As for the movie itself, it is an enjoyable mixed bag. For a script written by four people; Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flack, and Mark Levin The Adam Project feels impressively feels as if written with one voice. Considering it is a movie that pretends to be about time travel but in reality, is about overcoming grief, is an achievement in itself.
“Time Travel exists. You just don’t know it yet.” Which is a cute way of being coy and saving the audience exposition. Adam (Ryan Reynolds) travels from 2050 back to 2022, crash lands near his childhood home, and meets his twelve-year-old self played by Walker Scobell. He was trying to jump to 2018 because that’s where his wife Laura (Zoe Saldana) disappeared after she crashed.
Because there must always be complications, older Adam is being chased by Maya (Catherine Keener), the woman who owns the proprietary rights to time travel. She is vaguely implied to be one of the most powerful figures in the world. It is also implied that 2050 is not a good time to be alive.
But all of that doesn’t matter. The meat of the film is that young Adam is still processing the death of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), as is his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner). It’s these scenes that make The Adam Project worth watching. Levy and his bullpen of writers use Adam confronting himself as a way to work through the pain and sorrow of his father’s death as well as admitting that he wrongfully took out his grief and anger on his mother.
Garner is exceptional as always, giving Ellie an air of a woman on the verge of a nervous collapse but who’s valiantly holding it together despite her ungrateful son. In one instance, Ellie tells her bartender that teenagers are “Assains of happiness.”
Coincidentally older Adam also happens to be at the bar. The scene is touching because it’s a scene of a son trying to tell his mother how much he loves her without telling her how much he loves her. Reynolds shines in this scene as he is able to tone down his Reynolds-esque persona and play a man gutted by the way he treated his mother as a child.
Something we saw glimpses of earlier on where he confronts his younger self with the knowledge that he’s not the only one who misses their father. In this way, The Adam Project understands a fundamental misunderstood truth. The movies that popular culture is obsessed over are often obsessed over in entirely the wrong way. The references are often to the spectacle or the quirky oddities and rarely about the emotional undertones, the things that made the movie so impactful.
For example, Back to the Future is not about time travel. It is about understanding that your parents are people with hopes and dreams outside of you and that life was and is as hard for them as for you. Something, that The Adam Project blessedly seems to grasp.
It’s not that the sci-fi stuff isn’t good or the action scenes aren’t fun. The sci-aspect is a nice little throwback and the action is solid in a competent way. But it’s the coming to terms with loss and missed opportunities that drive The Adam Project.
Walker Scobell is a brilliant choice for a young Reynolds and the movie’s secret weapon. Reynolds is a movie star but lately, it has felt as if he’s been channeling the character of Deadpool, a cynical motormouth who likes to break the fourth wall. Pairing Scobell and Reynolds together works because it forces Reynolds to confront an almost purified version of that aspect of his personality. Granted, it’s likely meant to show how we mellow over time; but sometimes it’s hard to separate the art from the artist, as it were.
The comedy is less referential and much more observational. One instance has grown-up Adam at work with his father, Luis. Adam remarks about how it only took him forty-four years to take him to see his office. Ruffalo pauses as he mulls this over, “Fair.”
However, even though Saldana’s Laura is necessary to the plot, she feels almost like an afterthought to the movie. She does what she can but she exists mainly to give Adam growth and a prelude to an implied raucous sex scene, which while appreciated, would have been nice if she had more to do. Saldana’s performance nails a mixture of regret and soft tenderness for Adam, making it a pity Levy and his squad of scribes couldn’t figure out something more for her.
Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised that the characters didn’t spend scene after scene trying to explain how time travel worked. That’s not to say there aren’t scenes of this, but they don’t drag on past the point of amusement. Not to mention Reynold’s Adam has to keep reminding his younger self that not everything is like in the movies, especially theoretical physics.
Schliessler’s camera cleverly recreates moments and feels from classic sci-fi movies ranging from E.T. to Return of the Jedi, right down to the camera placement at times. While there are chronic symptoms of Ready Player One-itis, where characters say the title of the movie to make sure everyone in the audience is on the same page, it was never as distracting as in other movies. Still, while Schliessler’s camera, at times, gives The Adam Project an old-school feel, it can’t escape some of the rote-ness and bland aesthetic that comes from an over-reliance on CGI.
I found The Adam Project for the most part earnest and enjoyable. As sci-fi throwbacks to the 80s and 90s go, I’ve seen worse and I’ve seen better. But I don’t know if I’ve seen one with as much awareness of how the sadness we feel can sometimes turn to anger or how the two emotions, while similar, are not the same. Which, for a film like The Adam Project, makes it special.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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