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‘The Adam Project’ Review: Ryan Reynolds Travels Back in Time in Flimsy Movie That’s All Too Modern

The "Free Guy" team reassembles for an Amblin-esque adventure that's too desperate for view hours to recapture the magic of the movies that inspired it.

“The Adam Project”

“Enjoy yourselves,” said the ancient Romans (and the great early 20th century singer Guy Lombardo), “it’s later than you think.” Those words are a frequent refrain in the latest film from director Shawn Levy and star Ryan Reynolds, a sweet and snarky action-comedy which — in keeping with the duo’s similarly high-concept “Free Guy” — is only self-aware to a certain point.

On the one hand, “The Adam Project” recognizes that its star’s wounded sarcasm is the perfect fit for an Amblin-esque adventure about a swole fighter pilot who travels back in time in order to team up with his scrawny 12-year-old self (“It’s not a multiverse!” Reynolds shouts at the tween. “My god, we’ve seen too many movies”). On the other hand, this exhaustingly overstuffed Netflix spectacle is so busy trying to fuse the temporal antics of “Back to the Future” into the space-age heroism of “Star Wars” — and to do so in a way that will keep people from clicking over to “Love Is Blind” — that its favorite quote starts to sound less like an earnest plea to appreciate the present than it does a veiled threat to settle for it… or else.

It’s as if Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin, T.S. Nowlin, and Jonathan Tropper’s script is saying: “We know this lightning-paced 97-minute piece of streaming content is too desperate for ‘view hours’ to recapture the magic of the summer blockbusters that inspired it, and too derivative to create any of its own. But you should just hold your nose and swallow this flavorless swill down, because anyone who’s still willing to take a watchable, big-budget original movie for granted in the winter of 2022 doesn’t fully realize where things are going from here. At least this one has Catherine Keener cosplaying as Kylo Ren.”

And it does! Not literally, alas, but the “galaxy far, far away” of it all is undeniable in a film that starts with an intergalactic dogfight, peaks with a high-speed chase through an Endor-like forest, and punctuates most of its action scenes with admittedly cool lightsaber battles that find some fun new ways of playing with the classic prop. That tech comes from 2050, the year that Adam Reed (Reynolds) escapes at the start of the film as part of his mission to save our timeline from a future that supposedly feels like “Terminator 2” on a good day.

Wounded upon arriving in 2022 and therefore unable to power up a DNA-locked spaceship that also requires its pilots to be uninjured for some reason (most time-travel movies have the courtesy to wait a few minutes before they completely fry your logic centers, but OK), Adam has no choice but to conscript his younger self into service.

Played by newcomer Walker Scobell, who uncannily channels Reynolds’ spirit in a way that anchors “The Adam Project” to its premise even after the film’s story begins to fray apart, 12-year-old Adam is the kind of sad but smart-mouthed pipsqueak who might spend the rest of his overcompensating for the perceived weaknesses that defined him as a child. He’s bullied at school, he’s coddled at home (Jennifer Garner puts on a brave face as Adam’s lovingly exasperated mom), and he’s grieving the recent loss of his father everywhere he goes. For young Adam, the revelation that he’ll grow up to be a hunky hero type is the greatest news of all time, even if Reynolds shows up at his door with a dire warning about the future and a fresh bullet wound that loudly farts blood. For older Adam, soured by decades of loss and resentment, his prepubescent self is a noxious reminder that he didn’t always blame his dad for dying.

If you’ve ever seen a Ryan Reynolds movie before, you can probably imagine how things unfold from here: Just imagine if characters like Deadpool, Van Wilder, and Definitely Maybe had a pint-sized doppelgänger who echoed their ironic detachment and mugged for the camera so hard that every scene felt like it had to be stolen in order to succeed. Reynolds could do this kind of thing half-drunk on his own gin (playing the hot, self-centered version of his former self is a Reynolds speciality that stretches all the way back to “Just Friends”), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it, or that “The Adam Project” fails to have any fun with the wish-fulfillment of someone avenging their younger self — it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Adam’s schoolyard bullies are in for a rough afternoon.

But “The Adam Project” is neither satisfied with such character-driven hijinks, nor patient enough to let them grow into something richer. The future is coming for these boys in a hurry, and once it arrives — on the strength of a big armada and some even bigger ideas about the mechanics of space-time — the film starts barrelling forward in an effort to speed through its plot so fast that people lose sight of its holes.

By suggesting that time travel would always have existed once someone used it to jump back through a wormhole, “The Adam Project” politely tries to excuse itself from the “A” or “B” binary of a genre in which time tends to work as either a fixed loop (“La Jetée”) or a dynamic chronology (“Frequency”). It’s no surprise that the director of “Night at the Museum” isn’t really interested in having those headaches, nor is it a huge problem that his film gets squidgy about its own rules as fast as it does everything else.

He and his writers are absolutely right to recognize that a movie like this only needs to make emotional sense, but “The Adam Project” slips into a numbing cycle of pseudoscience and pointed one-liners because it fails to accrue any emotional weight. How Adam plans to reunite with his dead wife (Zoe Saldaña) only becomes a sticking point if viewers don’t care about why, just as why the two Adams need to team up with their dead father (Mark Ruffalo) to save the world only matters if viewers don’t care about how these people might be able to save each other.

Ruffalo makes for an adorably befuddled Disney dad, his rounded voice the perfect vehicle for awestruck dialogue about the poignancy of devoting one’s life to problems that only future generations will live to solve, but he just isn’t given enough time to untangle these fourth dimensional family dynamics, and not even Netflix’s finest scientists have the technology needed to change that.

It’s a fitting third act for an overly safe film that only feigns at its ambition, and it leaves “The Adam Project” seeming less like a natural fit for Reynolds’ talents than an ill-fitting star vehicle for someone who’s never been less interested in stretching his limits. “I spent 30 years trying to get away from the me that was you,” adult Adam laments to his younger self, but the line rings hollow coming from someone who’s entire screen image has always hinged on never growing up. If that arrested development might eventually push Reynolds back towards more interesting roles as he gets older, that future has seldom felt further away than it does right now.

Grade: C-

“The Adam Project” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, March 11.

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