The default tone of The Adam Project, Free Guy director Shawn Levy’s second sci-fi lite offering with Ryan Reynolds in as many years, is apiece with any other Reynolds film: quippy one-liners leavening a stressful situation. “Time travel exists, you just don’t know it yet,” we’re told in the opening shot, as an adult Adam Reed, another Reynolds-standard – a generically handsome, witty nice guy – steals a plane in the year 2050. Spitting comebacks even as he’s under fire in space – the graphics here (invisible ships!) seem decent for Netflix but still best suited for a small screen – Adam opens up a wormhole and crash-lands somewhere outside of Seattle in 2022.
Adult Adam, wounded and four years off from his target (the year 2018, to be later explained), blows up the life of his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell), an asthmatic, caustic small fry reeling from the recent loss of his scientist father Louis (Mark Ruffalo). Scobell, with his reedy voice, soft brown eyes and flop of blonde hair, is endearing despite having to muddle through lines that feel generated from a Reynolds bot – chirpy, deeply annoying comebacks to his wearied mother Ellie (an underused Jennifer Garner) or a pair of archetypical school bullies.
Little Adam is an aerospace nerd with a strong grasp of Back to the Future references, which is the best way to view this film: a high-concept but thin homage to light-hearted sci-fi romps of the past. Packaged with a prestige Netflix film budget (and filmed on location in Vancouver), The Adam Project offers a buffet of family friendly hooks – slickly choreographed action sequences with invisible fighters of the future, booming score, the baseline emotional pull that is the passage of time – that make little sense if you think at all about it, which is not really the point. It’s spectacle coasting on the evergreen draw of time travel paced with beats of occasionally effective human emotion – grief, regret, self-loathing and acceptance in sometimes moving, very manageable amounts.
The script by Jonathan Tropper, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett and TS Nowlin attempts the necessary explanations of 1) how time travel is possible and, more pressingly, 2) what happens when past and future self meet, which isn’t well explained beyond “the prevailing wisdom is: not good,” though that’s ultimately not necessary to appreciate a caper such as this. The Adams –12-year-old Adam in his “fixed time” (one’s natural untampered timeline, so 2022) and 40-year-old Adam from 2050 – are tasked with finding Adam’s future/current wife Laura (Zoe Saldana), who was possibly sabotaged into a 2018 trap (this all gets mind-bendy very fast, better to turn brain onto cruise control). The mission quickly morphs to saving the future from the time-travel exploitation of Louis’s former patron, of-the-moment villainess tech CEO Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), shot through with several time travel ethics questions used more as props than guideposts.
Enjoyment of The Adam Project will depend heavily on one’s tolerance for Reynolds’ well-established schtick, seeing as its doubled here into two schticks bouncing off each other. As in, nerdy Adam marvels at buff adult Adam’s muscles and is massively relieved that he one day gets laid. If the lilt of a tamer Deadpool or, of course, Free Guy are your thing, then The Adam Project will be more of your wheelhouse.
What does work, for me at least, are the sappy yet effective depictions of loss and the basic human ache for a little bit more control over the relentless march forward. Who hasn’t wished at some point to go back in time and savor a simple moment again, tell someone you loved them one more time, cheat death for an hour or two? The Adam Project benefits from the presence of Garner, always good as a mom with a deep well of compassion, and Ruffalo – no stranger to blockbuster action humor as the Avengers’ Hulk – who elevates the role of the Adams’ workaholic father.
At just under two hours, The Adam Project is stuffed with cheerfully indecipherable plot twists (nuclear reactors, crystals, equations) and mind scramblers (older characters manipulating their younger selves, variations of the butterfly effect). But it’s all at a competent, polished remove – complicated enough to get invested if you want, but built for passive enjoyment. The Adam Project may gesture at the grand world of time travel physics, but it’s actually quite a simple formula.