With its blend of childlike wonder and sci-fi action, it’s fairly obvious that The Adam Project, Netflix’s new film from director Shawn Levy, draws inspiration from films of the 1980s. Films like E.T., Back to the Future, The Goonies, or Explorers. Beyond just that though, one thing that really makes The Adam Project feel like a 1980s movie, and part of why we like it so damn much, is its brevity.
In the modern world of three-hour superhero films, fantasy epics with 12 different endings, and eight-hour TV series binges, there’s just something refreshing and delightful about a movie that jumps right in when it starts, and keeps that energy going until the very end. That’s The Adam Project. From the second you press play on Netflix, the film grabs you and doesn’t let go. In the very first scene we see Adam (Ryan Reynolds, reteaming with Levy after Free Guy) flying some super plane in 2050. He’s done something wrong, is being chased, and it’s all a bit of a blur. Then, before you know it he jumps back in time, it’s the present day, and he runs into his younger self, played by Walker Scobell.
There’s no fat on The Adam Project. It’s 106 minutes and from minute one instantly you’re enamored with this curious scenario of a rogue solider from the future who, for some reason, goes back in time to meet his younger self. On its own, this set-up could have easily been the basis for the entire movie. But The Adam Project doesn’t stop there.
The film’s true essence comes from the surprising and complex ways Big Adam deals with the situation. Yes, the idea of two versions of the same person is played for laughs but that’s only part of it. Big Adam, at the start, isn’t happy to see his younger self. This is not a version of himself he’s particularly proud of and the resentment gives the audience a chance to reflect on our own childhoods. Were we good kids? What would we change if we could? In Adam’s case, most of it has to do with his mom, Ellie (Jennifer Garner), and the resulting scenes of Big Adam seeing his mom when he was a boy are heartbreaking. They add an unexpected depth and poignancy to the characters that helps the film distinguish itself from those 1980s films it was inspired by. It just feels real and honest in a way those movie didn’t.
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly seeing his mom as a young woman is shocking and goofy. In The Adam Project, it’s not shocking or goofy, it’s cathartic and impactful. The characters grow as they learn about their future, or reflect on their past, and Levy handles it all with an expert touch, never letting that character development take over the main story. Instead he parses it out in just the right way to enrich the film without overpowering it.
Plus, all of that is happening just below the surface. The main time-travel story is what mostly drives the film and it too has a commendable escalation. Adam’s quest starts small but quickly snowballs into a dissection of the very essence of time travel itself, how that impacted history, and what the people in present day can do to save it. The Adams aren’t just fighting for themselves, they’re fighting for the world. That’s where smaller, but crucial, roles by the likes of Zoe Saldana, as Big Adam’s wife Laurie, and Mark Ruffalo, as his dad Louis, come in. Then of course there has to be a villain—and who better to play that villain than Catherine Keener—who ties the whole story together in a very satisfying away.
Along that way, Levy has some excellent action scenes, both on the ground and in the sky, with plenty of very cool, invented sci-fi technology, and enough nostalgic needle drops for a 1990s mix tape. The whole movie has a real propulsive energy to it, in part because the story moves so fast, but also because the stakes are continually being raised.
One small detractor is that Ryan Reynolds is basically playing Ryan Reynolds again—which, at this point, we kind of expect. However, the script by Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin gives him plenty of places to stretch that into some deeper, sadder places, which is nice and ends up working quite well. Beyond Reynolds, most of the other stars don’t have a ton to do, but each brings their A-game to the table, with Garner in particular really giving the movie its heartbeat. And yet, none of them come close to touching Scobell, who is both excellent at playing a kid version of Reynolds while also keeping an innocence and wonder that endear him to us. It’s a star-making performance.
And while ultimately The Adam Project ties up its story a little too quickly, despite that brevity being an asset at the beginning, I couldn’t help but finish it in a bit of a stupor. It’s been a long time since I’d been as dazzled as I was by a streaming film. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for the 1980s movies it’s inspired by, and the recent loss of my own mother made those maternal scenes land especially hard, but just as an entire package, I think The Adam Project is phenomenal. Not perfect, but easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and that Netflix has ever released.
The Adam Project is now on Netflix.
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