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The Ending of ‘The Adam Project’ Explained

Ryan Reynolds stars in a new Netflix thriller that explores the psychological implications of time travel. We break down the ending.
The Adam Project Explained
By  · Published on March 11th, 2022

Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the new Netflix thriller The Adam Project. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

When it comes to time-travel flicks, you can pretty much guarantee that when you sit down to watch one, a straightforward ending isn’t going to be in the cards. From the downright baffling final act of Tenet to the delightfully ambiguous ending of Palm Springs, when you indulge in a movie that involves time travel, there’s only one real certainty: you’re gonna be in for a surprise.

This is undeniably true for the new Netflix thriller The Adam Project. Directed by Shawn Levy, the film follows Adam (Ryan Reynolds), a fighter pilot from the year 2050 who accidentally crash-lands in 2022 while traveling back in time to find his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), who mysteriously vanished in the time-space-continuum while on a mission. In 2022, Adam meets his wise-cracking younger self and solicits his help in traveling back to 2018, where he had initially intended to go to find Laura. 

Of course, their journey back in time doesn’t come without its share of roadblocks. Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), a scientist who has weaponized time-travel and turned the future into a dystopia, sends her minions to fight the duo in 2022 to prevent them from tampering with the past. So when Laura (somewhat inexplicably) shows up in 2022, Big Adam realizes that the only way to save her from being killed by these minions is to go back in time and stop time travel from being invented altogether.

Oh, and it is Adam’s physicist dad, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), who co-founded time-travel around the year 2018, not knowing that Maya would later use it for her own nefarious corporate gain. So in an effort to take her down, Louis and the two Adams travel to Maya’s headquarters back in 2018, where they are confronted with a past and a present version of her. Realizing that Louis is endeavoring to destroy the hard drive with the time-travel algorithm on it, Maya shoots at him, but the bullet spins around and hits her past self in the chest and kills her, effectively blocking the invention of time-travel. Louis explains that this physics-defying bullet manipulation happened because armor-piercing rounds contain a magnetic steel core, so the bullet gravitated toward the magnetic time-travel machine, causing it to act like a boomerang.

Okay, so Maya is dead, and time travel was never invented. Now what? For Big Adam, his brief stint in the past is bittersweet for a multitude of reasons. For starters, Louis dies in a car crash around the year 2020, but he refuses to let either version of his son tell him when or how it happens. As a scientist, Louis believes that upholding the integrity of the universe involves not tampering with the past. He worries that preventing his own death might set off some sort of sinister butterfly effect, and he’s simply not willing to risk it – even if that means sacrificing his own life in the process.

This plays into one of The Adam Project’s central questions: is there such a thing as fate? At least for Big Adam, the answer is yes. When he and Laura are briefly reunited in 2022, Adam protests the idea of stopping the invention of time travel, because they met in a time-travel course, and eliminating it would mean they never get to meet. But Laura confidently explains to Adam that they love each other, and that love will draw them together in any alternate timeline.

In the final scene of the film, Laura’s prophecy comes true. In a time-travel-less universe, Big Adam attends a physics course when Laura walks in. The two start chatting, and Laura explains that she’s a guest-lecturer on computational linguistics. Adam tells her that she’s in the wrong place, and offers to walk her to where she’s supposed to go, thus starting their love story anew.

So, as it turns out, Laura was right. Perhaps love is a force as strong as science that pulls people together no matter the circumstance, just like the magnetic field pulled Maya’s bullet back toward her. So many pieces had to fall into place for Adam and Laura to meet again. He had to be in that very class at that very time, sitting in that exact seat, and Laura had to get just lost enough to end up there. How can you not chalk all that up to fate?

In the same way, perhaps Big Adam and Little Adam were fated to meet one another. In their brief time together, one of the primary things they discuss is their parents. Little Adam and his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner), in particular, have a fraught relationship. Following Louis’s death, Little Adam has started acting out by talking back to Ellie and frequently getting suspended from school. Although this is just his way of processing his grief, Ellie takes it to heart and is convinced that he hates her. 

When Big Adam returns to 2022, his main goal is to rescue Laura. But when he comes face-to-face with his younger self, he realizes that just as important is instilling in him the importance of kindness, and, through that, righting his past wrongs. In the end, this lesson gets through to Little Adam, who embraces Ellie in one of the final scenes of The Adam Project. Perhaps just as Laura and Adam were destined to find one another again, Adam was fated to go back in time and convince his past self to treat their mother well. In the end, it seems that Louis looked at the whole time-travel thing from a little too scientific of a perspective, and tampering with fate is sometimes necessary.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.