12 year old Adam Reed (Walter Scobell) comes home from school to be confronted by his future self (Ryan Reynolds), a time-travelling fighter pilot who accidentally crash-landed in 2022. Now grownup Adam needs young Adam's help to stop the quantum experiment treacherous tech magnate Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) orchestrates in order to turn herself into a dystopian dictator. Along the way older Adam also tries to help his younger self deal with a recent loss.
Lately you can't move for the sheer volume of retro-Eighties genre films looking to capture the public's un-sated appetite for nostalgia. Such is the case with the Netflix production The Adam Project. Fresh off their big screen blockbuster Free Guy (2021) producer-star Ryan Reynolds and Stranger Things director Shawn Levy reteam here for a feel-good sci-fi adventure that deliberately evokes the kind of heart-warming, high-concept outings that were once Amblin Entertainment's stock-in-trade. Of course for every Gremlins (1984) or Back to the Future (1985) Steven Spielberg’s beloved production company also delivered the odd stolid dollop of treacle with Harry and the Hendersons (1987) and Batteries Not Included (1987); both of which have their fans to be fair. So what end of the spectrum does The Adam Project fall?
Like the best Amblin films underneath all the sci-fi shenanigans and visual effects wizardry rests a very human story. Co-written by novelist Jonathan Tropper (who previously penned comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You (2014) for Shawn Levy), Maze Runner scribe T.S. Nowlin and directing duo Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (who made the accomplished adolescent rom-com Little Manhattan (2005) and quirky children's adventure Nim's Island (2008), the script's core idea of a child confronted by their future failures and pain has an emotional weight the film wisely does not sidestep for the sake of cheap laughs. Even though Ryan Reynolds maintains his patented machinegun barrage of wiseass witticisms. Levy, an accomplished, too often underrated studio filmmaker lifts that familiar blue-hued magical lights-in-the-woods look from E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (1982) and other Spielberg joints and stages a variation on the iconic speeder-bike sequence from Return of the Jedi (1983) but scores his biggest win with those scenes detailing time-displaced family tension. The brief interaction between Reynolds and Jennifer Garner, who powerhouses her way through the stock Dee Wallace single mom doing the best she can role, lands especially well. Later on co-stars Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo bring additional plot wrinkles that are equally engaging, well scripted and played, forcing both incarnations of Adam to realize it is easier to be angry than it is to properly process sadness and loss. Even Catherine Keener's megalomaniacal villain is confronted by a more sympathetic younger version of herself although in this instance shoddy de-aging computer graphics lessen the impact. To its credit, while The Adam Project strives to be upbeat and family friendly, it does not cheapen the inherent pathos of its family drama for the sake of a saccharine "everything’s alright now" resolution.
The film moves fast, though maybe too fast. After all those ’80s classics the filmmakers so obviously revere gave the audience a moment to breathe and revel in that all-important sense of wonder, rather than hurtle along to the next gag, plot point or whiz-bang visual. On the plus side Levy's zippy direction ensures the performances crackle and keep pace with the snappy script. Reynolds, while admittedly still doing his post-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds thing, still manages to sell the emotional undertones with the occasional anguished look while young co-star Walter Scobell ably embodies exactly the kind of smart-mouth adolescent one would expect to grow up to be a Ryan Reynolds character while remaining vulnerable and sympathetic.