The idea that the world is speeding up is, for the most part, a lie people tell themselves to deny that they’re getting older. Even onscreen, a perceived acceleration may be an illusion: Yes, an average 21st-century film has more and quicker edits than one made before 1980, thanks to developments in technology and the rise of the “MTV style.” But the back-and-forth in a 21st-century Marvel movie is no faster than that of a 1940s screwball comedy. (It might be slower, actually.) So while Netflix’s science fiction comedy The Adam Project may feel like an Amblin Entertainment film played at 1.5 speed for viewers who grew up with those movies, the reasons for that go beyond the cruel distortions of time.
One major factor behind the film’s rat-a-tat energy is star Ryan Reynolds: He’s Deadpool, for God’s sake. Rapid-fire sarcasm is a cornerstone of his brand. Writer-director Shawn Levy has already collaborated with Reynolds (on 2021’s Free Guy) and shot eight episodes of Stranger Things, so combining the two is a logical next step. When Levy and Reynolds — both co-producers on the film — play to their strengths, The Adam Project is zippy, agreeable sci-fi fun that produces a few good chuckles. But in moments where undiluted sweetness is required, the film’s glib writing stands out in a negative way.
The film opens in 2050, just outside Earth’s orbit, where Adam (Reynolds) — a classic “hotshot pilot who plays by his own rules” type — is preparing to steal a time-traveling jet. Adam is desperate to go back to 2018, for reasons that quickly become clear. But he accidentally crash-lands in 2022, with a bullet in his side and a bio-linked ship that won’t start until his injury heals. (The movie is full of “Okay, I guess” contrivances of this type.) So he breaks into the backyard of his 12-year-old self, a smaller, more asthmatic, but equally smart-mouthed version of Adam (Walker Scobell).
Adult Adam needs young Adam’s DNA to start his ship. Young Adam needs adult Adam to help him work through some issues related to the recent death of their father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant but neglectful physicist. So the two set out on a rollicking adventure through space (well, just across town) and time (but only, like, five years) to stop the Louis of 2018 from achieving the scientific breakthroughs that will make time travel a reality. Sidelines with Zoe Saldaña as adult Adam’s courageous wife Laura and Jennifer Garner as both Adams’ predictably put-upon mom Ellie imply that women serve as tempering influences for Adam at both ages. But for the most part, this story is more about Adam’s relationship with his dad — and himself.
Reynolds and Scobell have a winning chemistry as the two Adams, coordinating their body language and bouncing playful insults off each other throughout the film. (A moment where the two giggle as Reynolds makes his bullet wound “fart” is surprisingly sweet.) The idea of a child meeting their adult self or an adult traveling back in time to right the wrongs of their childhood have both been explored in other movies — including 13 Going on 30, another film that cast Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo as a couple. The Adam Project’s four-person writing team is hyper-aware of that fact, just as they’re clearly aware that Adam fights with a weapon that looks a lot like a lightsaber, against a villain whose scheme to create a Terminator future resembles Biff Tanner’s plan in Back to the Future Part II.
Levy handles these references in a lighter way than, say, Ready Player One, however. The Adam Project’s purpose seems to be more to make a movie in the spirit of an ’80s family-friendly sci-fi adventure than to leech off the goodwill audiences have toward pre-existing films. That being said, Levy does stage some action in a forest straight out of E.T., and young Adam wears a puffy Marty McFly vest throughout the film. But again, these winks are wielded with the intention of creating the same type of wonder in today’s kids as Spielberg’s films did 40 years ago, while still nodding to the ‘80s-kid parents sitting next to them on the couch. And there are moments specifically designed to thrill viewers around young Adam’s age, like the scene where he takes down a gaggle of robotic bad guys with drones controlled by his VR helmet. If this was 1989, it would have been a Nintendo Power Glove.
Perhaps it goes without saying that The Adam Project glides over the paradoxes of time travel, acknowledging that the two Adams hanging out should unravel the space-time continuum, but never really explaining why it doesn’t. (Primer this is not.) That’s forgivable, given that the film moves too quickly, and too cheerfully, to dwell on any scientific conundrums.
But it is indicative of how The Adam Project loses its grip when the stakes become a little higher. Catherine Keener is oddly cast as the film’s Big Bad, for example, playing her character neither as an over-the-top supervillain nor as a credible threat. (Netflix also trots out some of that Irishman technology to put Keener’s face on a body double in scenes where she interacts with her younger self.) And a romantic interlude between Garner and Ruffalo is a little too quippy for its own good.
One emotional note The Adam Project hits perfectly is dead-dad schmaltz — again, unsurprising, given the palette of influences Levy is working with here. Family storylines are a hallmark of the ’80s kids’ adventure movies being lovingly re-created in The Adam Project, and it’s worth noting that the film does slow down, both in terms of pacing and dialogue, for the sentimental scenes between father and son(s). When dealing with more adult emotions — say, corporate greed or romantic love — the film can’t help but undercut them with defensive sarcasm. But its exploration of the wounds of childhood comes from a more earnest place.
The years go faster as we grow older, but the hurts we suffered as children stay frozen until we address them. The form of therapy presented in The Adam Project is obviously impossible, and more than a little simplistic. But in a film that rockets out of the gate with such breakneck speed, it’s unexpectedly affecting when it gets down to the business of healing Adam’s inner child — or outer child, as the case may be. So while The Adam Project may make E.T. seem sluggish, its heart is in the same vulnerable place.
The Adam Project debuts on Netflix on March 11.