The title of The Adam Project refers to the complicated scientific research of absentminded professor Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo), which eventually leads to the invention of time travel. The Ryan Reynolds Project, meanwhile, seems to involve the production of “original” movies that time-travel through popcorn-cinema history, pilfering as they go. Reuniting with director Shawn Levy following Free Guy and reuniting with Netflix on the heels of Red Notice, Reynolds has reconfigured his wiseass persona into a totem for faux-Spielbergian wonder, complete with daddy issues. The real wonder is how synthetic all this originality can feel.
The film’s premise stacks up the wistful what-ifs. Adam (Walker Scobell) is a mouthy 12-year-old in 2022 who keeps getting beaten up by school bullies (and then suspended for “fighting”) as he works through the death of his father. Adam (Ryan Reynolds) is a mouthy 40-year-old in 2050 who flies a futuristic-looking jet while pursued by nefarious forces. Physical resemblance doesn’t materialize, but the incessant sarcastic quipping tells the story: These Adams are one and the same—and the accidental inventor of time travel is their dead dad. Through a wormhole mishap, Older Adam winds up face-to-face with his younger self, and reluctantly enlists his (self-)help to save his current-and-future wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña)—which may involve looping back to when their dad was alive.
The bittersweet ability to converse (and bicker) with your younger self; the fleeting chance for extra time with a departed family member; the hope of finding a lost love again in an ocean of time—these are all inherently poignant and emotional sci-fi concepts that The Adam Project heightens and amps up. It has to, so these ideas can compete with all of the other pointless noise it generates. Reynolds—who, it always bears repeating, is a capable actor with a weakness for franchising his smarm—obviously appreciates Amblin movies of the ’80s, and this is his tribute to all-ages action-adventure with sweetness in its heart and swears in its mouth. The problem is, the movie can barely see beyond its endless self-pitching: What if E.T. was also Back to the Future, with Top Gun jet action courtesy of Skydance, America’s most fighter-plane-obsessed production company?
The opportunistic mix-and-match is visible in the production design: Younger Adam resides at a generically well-appointed modern home situated in golden-lit, vaguely phony forest settings that recall both Spielberg and 2000s Fox Studios cost-saving. The soundtrack, meanwhile, bumps oldies over scenes of spaceship-style aerial combat, clearly and embarrassingly pursuing that Guardians of the Galaxy vibe—a more recent smash about the types of characters who can’t stop talking about totally awesome ’80s stuff.
When The Adam Project does venture outside of the blockbuster comfort zone, it plays weirdly (if, given the movie’s doubling, appropriately) like a Reynolds celebration reel. There’s a giant-magnet gag not unlike a sequence from 6 Underground, and at one point, someone quotes the Deadpool bit about a “superhero landing.”
“We watch too many movies,” Older Adam notes ruefully at one point. He’s not wrong, although that’s also just one more element of nerdiness more evident in the movie’s pandering than in its actual characterization. Younger Adam is repeatedly described as a “nerd,” but why? Issuing canned Reynolds-style quips, playing videogames and using an inhaler once doesn’t exactly speak to a depth of nerdiness—or anything more specific than “kid who grows up to be Ryan Reynolds.”
This self-conscious starriness emits a fake-looking glare, blocking any vision of time-tripping pathos. Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner (spiritually if not physically reunited after 13 Going on 30) know how to play these sorts of good-hearted parental roles, but they’re stuck in a movie too distractible to live in any of its scenes (or, for that matter, lean into the dizzying complexities of time-hopping). Levy knows what wonder and excitement in this type of movie is supposed to look like—specks of light falling through trees; sleek lightsaber-style weapons engaging in breathless, bloodless combat—and puts too much trust in awe-by-proxy. When it comes time to hit the emotional stuff home, Levy and his screenwriters overcompensate: Repeat the assurances! Double the hugs! Swell that music! Explain the catharsis everyone is experiencing! As with Free Guy, Reynolds and Levy have made a movie aimed at the dead center of mainstream geek culture, designed to be described as having so much heart—even though it’s as smooth and featureless as a Funko Pop.
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Walker Scobell, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldaña, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener
Release Date: March 11, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.