Netflix original movie The Adam Project is the second slick, mainstream action-comedy of the last 12 months pairing director Shawn Levy with the brigadier general of wisecracks, Ryan Reynolds. Their previous outing, Free Guy, was a late-summer pandemic box office hit and a likable-enough distraction, which is about what we expect from highly dependable fun guy Reynolds. That’s a low-ish bar to clear, so a movie about a fella who travels back in time to hang with his 12-year-old self and maybe save the world seems like a slam dunk, right? Let’s find out.
The Gist: SUBTITLE: TIME TRAVEL EXISTS. YOU JUST DON’T KNOW IT YET. It’s 2022 and middle-schooler Adam (Walter Scobell, in his acting debut) is getting his ass beat by bullies. He’s yet to experience his first growth spurt and a bit of a nerd, maybe a geek with twerpish tendencies, if you want to get particular about it. His only weapon in a dog-eat-dog world is his smart-alecky mouth, which tells us he’s going to grow up to be a man played by Ryan Reynolds – a man played by Ryan Reynolds who just so happens to be escaping from bad guys by flying a quantum super jet plane through a wormhole back in time 30 years to land in his old backyard. But let’s not lose track of Young Adam, who just got suspended from school and, not too long ago, lost his dad in a car accident. His mom (Jennifer Garner) doesn’t know what to do with the kid, who positively excels at not doing what he’s told; all she can do is keep on keepin’ on, and share her woes with her favorite bartender.
The features in Young Adam’s backyard include an E.T. forest and an E.T. shed, the former being a good hiding place for the super quantum jet, the latter for hiding Middle-aged Adam, who’s nursing a bullet wound and bent on listening to his dad’s old records (with a stabilizing weight and everything, very fancy) and saving the world from becoming, as Middle-aged Adam puts it, like The Terminator, but worse. This is where the plot gets a little ouroborosian and squishy with the details, so hang on: The mere invention of time travel has something to do with human society becoming a hellscaped dungheap in 2050, exacerbated by an evil science or tech lady, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener).
Turns out, Adam meant to land in 2018, which is when his genius physicist dad accidentally invented time travel. So he throws his younger self in the plane and they hop back to the past, probably putting cracks in the space-time continuum with every hiccup and eyelash bat, not to mention some of the major damage they cause, but let’s not get into that, shall we? The movie really doesn’t, even though it tosses out stuff about “the timestream” and how it needs to be fixed, things like that, and I’m warning you here, the more you try to discern whether this is a Back to the Future-type situation or an Avengers: Endgame-type situation or something more original (note: it’s not particularly original), the more your head will hurt. Anyway, let’s just say the plot drags in Mark Ruffalo as Adam’s dad and Zoe Saldana as his future wife, even though both of them are supposed to be dead. That’s a time travel movie for you, ain’t it?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Levy’s Spielbergisms have rarely been so prevalent – lotsa E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds and Ready Player One here. Adam’s woodsy backyard is of the type where you expect to find Ewoks, and Middle-aged Adam wields a deadly double-bladed Darth Maul lightsaber against some black-armored don’t-call-them-stormtrooper disposable bad guys. Back to the Future is the greater reference point, partially in the conceptual mechanics of time travel, but more so in the going-back-to-hang-with-your-family arc.
Performance Worth Watching: Scobell sees like quite the find: A kid with crisp comic timing, capacity for emotional depth and an ability to flesh out his character with unspoken nuance.
Memorable Dialogue: During a heartfelt moment, Middle-aged Adam tells his younger self something he knows now that he wishes he knew back then, which is also now, and kicks off the spiel by tying our brains in knots: “I spent 30 years trying to get away from the me that was you.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Like Free Guy, The Adam Project cribs a number of tropes from other, better movies to create genial aggregate entertainment. By virtue of not being part of a bigger franchise/cinematic universe (feel free to sigh at the mere mention of these terms), the movie can pass itself off as an original idea, which is just the way things are right now. So if it seems fresh for simply not being based on something else, or a remake, or not a piece of a bigger more epic narrative, keep in mind, this is all highly relative – its bland blend of buddy-comedy, action-flick, time-travel-saga fodder is overly familiar.
But where Free Guy exhibited strong visual dynamics and a bevy of (unfocused) subtextual cud to gnaw on, The Adam Project is content to coast on medium-weight sentiment and passably generic chase and fight sequences. So expect lots of ’70s-rock needle drops (Zeppelin, Boston), ’80s absent-dad emotional goo, ’90s hair on the bullies, ’00s Reynoldsian one-liners, ’10s corporate villainy, and ’20s balance of streamability and disposability – rendering it a real time-traveler of a movie. The plotting is sloppy and the dialogue is crisp; the direction emphasizes zippy action and broad character strokes within amiable performances. There’s nothing to dislike here, but nothing to truly love, either.
Our Call: The Adam Project is as eminently watchable as it is eminently pausable to check your phone, take a leak or fire up another batch of Jiffy Pop. It sits on the Fence o’ Ambivalence, but given its status as a modest, not-particularly-ambitious Netflix movie, it meets expectations. STREAM IT, but I’ll be shocked if anyone talks about it or remembers it much.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.