Beating out every other show, movie, or just flipping around aimlessly until you give up and go to bed angry, Netflix’s number one most-streamed title right now is The Adam Project starring Ryan Reynolds as a futuristic fighter pilot who travels back in time and meets his past self. While the film isn’t winning over all audiences, at least it has seemingly united the world in its collective disdain for whatever digital weirdness was applied to Catherine Keener’s face.

Part of The Adam Project’s problem is how immediately phoney it all feels, even though it cost a whopping $130 million dollars to make; enough dough to send Reynolds on his trip through time via a goofy CGI wormhole. 

By contrast one of the best recent time travel movies, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (just released on VOD in the U.S. last month) cost only around $25,000. Without spoiling too much, the film, made in just seven days during the pandemic, begins with simply a dude talking to his future self on a computer monitor – and the effect is far more convincing than anything in The Adam Project. 

So often it’s low-budget movies, like Primer and Timecrimes, that make the best use of time travel. Which makes sense since, unlike many other science fiction conceits, time travel doesn’t necessarily require any visual effects; and that low-fi vibe can make time travel seem more believable. 

Perhaps the best evidence of this theory in practice was Looper. Director Rian Johnson had a large enough budget to give Joseph Gordon-Levitt a Dick Tracy-esque prosthetic makeover to resemble young Bruce Willis, but for the time travel, he decided that the best, most convincing effect would be if the actors simply popped into the frame. Which is pretty much what a 9-year-old with an iPhone and zero access to Bruce Willis would do. 

Even the central emotional story of The Adam Project (a guy goes back in time, meets his younger self and his dead father) was arguably done way better for way less money in a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a dude just inexplicably wanders into the past.

Maybe the reason is that, despite any Phish concertgoers’ arguments to the contrary, humans can’t actually see time; so efforts to make time into some kind of expensive vortex thingy will always contradict our lived experience, whereas broke filmmakers with an ingenious idea can monkey with time in ways that we accept far more easily. 

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Top Image: Netflix

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