The Adam Project started out in 2012 as a spec script by T.S. Nowlin, who hadn’t even cut his teeth yet on adapting the Maze Runner trilogy (yikes) or co-writing Pacific Rim: Uprising (ouch). At some point, the screenplay was handed off to the husband/wife team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, previously known for Nim’s Island (oof) and the 2008 remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth (gah). Last but not least, the FOURTH credited screenwriter here is Jonathan Tropper, late of such underwhelming fizzled-out dramedies as This is Where I Leave You, Kodachrome, and Irreplaceable You (yeesh).

All of this under the direction of Shawn Levy. If you had told me even a year ago that goddamn Shawn Levy would’ve been the one to salvage this trainwreck, I’d have laughed in your face. But then Free Guy happened. Not since Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have we seen anything like the team-up of Ryan Reynolds and Shawn Levy: Two collaborators who could magically turn the most pathetically shitty project into cinematic gold. And now they’re working with Netflix, so they don’t have the Fox/Disney merger bullshit to deal with. So what have we got?

We open in the year 2050, after the invention of time travel. The bad news is, time travel is under the monopolistic purview of Maya Sorien (Catherine Keener), a mad scientist who’s used time travel on numerous occasions to take over the world and burn it all down for the sake of her own wealth and power. Enter Adam Reed (producer Ryan Reynolds), a pilot who takes his time jet on an unauthorized joyride back to 2018. I won’t get into the specific reasons why, but I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s some measure of resistance against Sorien. In any case, the time jump goes awry and Adam crash-lands in the year 2022.

At this point, Young Adam (played by Walker Scobell) is a 12-year-old asthmatic kid who compensates for his frailty with a rapier wit. Which naturally compels the local bully (Ray, played by Braxton Bjerken) to beat him up even harder. What’s worse, Adam’s father (Dr. Louis Reed, played by Mark Ruffalo) passed away in some tragic accident roughly a year ago. Adam is still grieving, so he vents his anger by way of withering insults toward everyone around him, including — most tragically — his own struggling newly-single mother (Ellie Reed, played by Jennifer Garner).

In short order, Adam crash-lands into Young Adam’s backyard. Because Adam was injured in the crash, the time jet’s safety measures mean that he can’t turn it on. But Young Adam is alive and healthy, and the only other person capable of bypassing the DNA lock. So now the both of them are stuck together on a quest to defeat the evil world-consuming corporation before it even really existed.

To get this out of the way, the “whiz-bang” action aspect of the film is sadly underwhelming. It doesn’t help that the technology involved — most especially Adam’s don’t-call-it-a-lightsaber — is so poorly defined and inconsistently used that it can do pretty much anything the plot demands with no apparent costs or consequences. I might add that the future tech doesn’t have anything unique or distinctive in the design, and that goes double for the army of faceless goons coming after our heroes.

Really, the world-building as a whole comes off as pretty half-baked. This is most glaringly obvious in the time-travel mechanics, which are aggressively hand-waved away without explanation. As best I can tell, everyone and everything has a “true time”, a specific spot in the space-time continuum where they belong. So time travelers put themselves in a different timeline and muck about with the universe until the plot deems fit to send them back to when they came from. The whole conceit falls apart with even the slightest degree of thought, which is kind of a big fucking problem in a plot that’s all about retroactively changing the future.

Yes, time travel can get complicated. I realize that nobody wants to get into the weeds regarding cause and effect when it could weigh down what’s supposed to be a light and breezy sci-fi romp. But understanding the means and consequences of messing around with history is the whole point of the movie, and I have to hold it against the film when the collective talent of FOUR WRITERS wasn’t enough to crack the concept.

(Side note: Remember, folks, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure did a far better job of explaining its time travel mechanics and how events can be affected by altering the past, all without dragging down a film that any teenager could follow and enjoy. And that movie only had two writers. And it cracked that nut 35 freaking years ago.)

Then we’ve got the villains, who are subpar across the board. Alex Mallari Jr. is on hand to play the heavy, and his character is a void of personality. Catherine Keener’s character isn’t any better, alas. Keener is of course a marvelous actor, but “two-dimensional psychopath” isn’t a tool in her kit and the script is giving her nothing else to work with. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the younger version of Sorian, brought to us with the most horrifically slipshod de-aging VFX I’ve seen in any movie since goddamn Tron: Legacy.

But even for all of those glaring flaws, I still loved the movie. Because in the final analysis, it’s not really about stopping the bad guy.

First of all, I cannot possibly stress enough that Ryan Reynolds and Walker Scobell carry this film together. I seriously want to know where in the nine hells they found Scobell. Did Reynolds have a son or a younger brother that nobody knew about? Did somebody clone the motherfucker? Did somebody actually go back in time and bring Ryan Reynolds’ younger self back onto the set under an alias? Because I’m dying to know how the filmmakers found a kid who could imitate Ryan Reynolds’ established schtick to uncanny perfection. I could swear that this kid looks and acts more like Ryan Reynolds at twelve years old than Reynolds himself did at that age, it’s frightening.

More to the point, this is a film in which a scrawny young asthmatic is interacting with a world-famous Hollywood action movie star, and they’re both the same person. How and when did one become the other? Well, Adam explains that he had to fail repeatedly and get crushed in a thousand more fights by a hundred more bullies before he could get to where he is now. But was all that misery really worth it?

Both iterations of Adam are the products of tragedy. Young Adam is still grieving the loss of his father, but Adam has been sitting with that grief and bitterness for thirty years. Thus Adam has a lot to teach his younger self about regret, most especially with regards to how Young Adam is taking his frustrations out on his poor mother. But on the other hand, Adam has spent the past thirty years running so hard and so far from his childhood, he’s forgotten all the good things he had in his earlier life and all the good times he had with his late father. Young Adam can give those back to him.

And that’s not even getting started on Adam’s interactions with Louis and Ellie Reed. Those heart-to-heart talks are few and fleeting, but damned if they’re not tearjerkers. Likewise, Zoe Saldana makes the absolute utmost of her all-too-brief screentime, introducing a compelling ethical dilemma for Adam. I don’t dare spoil any more than that, but suffice to say that this is a Zoe Saldana character, well within the “empowered beautiful action heroine” style that she could do in her sleep at this point.

At every turn, The Adam Project has so much to say about generational trauma, about making every moment count, the nature of love and loss, etc. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and bursting with heart, enough to redeem the film’s many narrative shortcomings. Much as I respect the stuntwork and all the effort that clearly went into the fight scenes, I didn’t care about the fights or chase scenes or stopping the big evil plot anywhere near as much as I cared about both iterations of Adam and their families.

This is a tough recommendation, and I’m typically loathe to utter the phrase “turn your brain off”. But if you can savor the film’s emotional moments and the performances from the core leading cast without thinking too much about how the time travel plot is supposed to make any sense, you’ll have a good time with this.

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