The Adam Project shines when it’s not a sci-fi action-adventure film and instead focuses on the emotional beats between Adam and his family.
The Adam Project was purposefully designed with a sense of nostalgia for the production. The look and feel of the film harken back to an era that produced classics like Back to the Future and The Goonies, fused together with a standard action/sci-fi film. But one of those aspects works far better than the other. The Adam Project’s sci-fi elements might be the driving force of the plot, but it’s far from the film’s actual greatest strength: the emotional beats between the time-displaced Adam (Ryan Reynolds) and his family from the past, with those elements standing out far better than the spectacle.
The film is largely driven by sci-fi and action beats, although The Adam Project’s overall plot is probably its more forgettable aspect. In a future where time travel has been perfected thanks to the work of Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo). Using time travel, the future version of Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) is able to give her younger self the advice key to turning her into one of the world’s most powerful business owners — and giving her large amounts of control over the application of time travel. But her machinations have led to a decimated Earth, resulting in one of her agents, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), and then her husband Adam venturing into the past to try and prevent that potential timeline. It’s largely forgettable, and while Maya’s inner conflict is teased, it’s never fully explored within the film.
While well-directed, The Adam Project’s sci-fi/action sections are the film’s least interesting elements. It quickly becomes techno-babble to set up cool fights with soldiers from the future and plays out as one would expect. The villains are stopped, time travel is destroyed, and the world is saved. Those aren’t the elements of The Adam Project that really work. The film shines when it instead focuses on the Reed family and their interpersonal problems. In the present day, the young Adam (Walker Scobell) and his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) are still dealing with the death of Louis a few years previously — a lingering trauma that’s still very much an issue for the grown Adam. When the film slows down, it allows Reynolds to actually infuse Adam with a bittersweet sense of regret.
During a moment where Adam finds his mother drinking at a local bar, he opens up about his own issues and — while avoiding telling her his true identity — tearfully explains that her son really does love her and would respond to her opening up about her pain instead of trying to be a rock-hard support system and nothing else. Likewise, Adam’s eventual conversations with Louis and his younger self expose a man who’s still very much in need of processing the twists and turns his life has given him. The film best finds focus in these smaller moments, highlighting emotional beats like Adam’s unconscious decision to only focus on his father’s faults out of lingering anger for his death. It’s not a coming-of-age film for the young Adam but an emotional one for the grown Adam.
It’s a surprisingly mature concept to approach for a family film like this, with the young Adam getting to see firsthand what holding onto his anger and grief instead of working through them will do to him. While the young Adam repeatedly seems to look up to his older self, there are moments — particularly a genuine conversation they have ahead of making a final push to destroy time-travel — where he almost seems to pity the kind of person he’s going to become. This realization helps the older Adam process his emotions and prepare for a genuine heartstring-pulling ending where the Adams and their father play catch while waiting for the timeline to repair itself and return them to their proper times.
It’s these moments where the film reaches the Amblin-style that it’s clearly harkening to and when the film really shines. The Adam Project is most exciting when it actually moves away from the basic action material and focuses on the unique emotional moments made possible by unlikely circumstances.