Time travel exists. You just don’t know it yet.
We see as a warning right off the top of the latest attempt to continue a time tested element of nostalgic fantasy or sci-fi family features. One unashamedly following Twilight Zone approved ground, and handled in the delicate hands of a director whose body of work broadens out further with every piece with surprisingly effective results. Shaun Levy follows up his pandemic-delayed crowd-pleaser Free Guy with The Adam Project, an unabashed flex of his inner Zemeckis or Gunn, once more carrying Ryan Reynolds in tow to trade jester’s court for royal jury. For the still often-ribald actor, the realm of the melodramatic hasn’t looked more momentum-building.
But try telling that to the character he portrays and the mess he’s trying to clean up within time-space. Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a cocky space pilot trying to reverse the dangerous effects of time travel. A fix further complicated when he encounters his younger self, 12 year old Adam (Walker Scobell) thirty years back to the present. He’s not had the best couple years, his dad (Mark Ruffalo) passed on, his overworked mom (Jennifer Garner) unable to keep him under control, his theatrics making him a sitting target of middle school bullying. It’s not an agreeable situation.
Matters only intensify when a random stranger arrives at Adam’s doorstep, revealed to be his middle-aged counterpart, who overshot his trajectory on the years. Elder Adam’s trying to rescue his bride Laura (Zoe Saldana), and correct the continuum from immoral ramifications which his scientist father could not contain. Without much thought, young Adam joins in, unsure of what could occur when confronting his past, and his future. It’s all a bit dicey with shrewd businesswoman Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) pulling the strings of time travel for commercial purposes.
Neither Adam’s going into this experimental mission with a clear cut plan, as opposed to Levy’s goal for recapturing nostalgia, working with a writing brain trust helmed by Jonathan Tropper (This is Where I Leave You) and T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner). Levy’s placed his director’s cap on backwards, toying around with evergreen elements we’d know from the likes of Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator, mild dashes of Guardians, and Return of the Jedi. Invoking those parallels does question the level of originality in this story’s wheelhouse. We’re not starved of it, more pondering an open door that stays open while events occur.
If this Project were to break new ground, it likely does so in condensing and remodeling the recklessness of time-space to a digestible nexus without the desire to over explain. Just basic rules, which young Adam can’t quite wrap around at first, and that older Adam is aware he must bend to avoid prior mistakes repeating. It’s personal for both of them, younger Adam never having connected well to his father, the elder version still pining for the only woman he loved, even after Sorian killed her once. It sounds convoluted, but Levy builds those workarounds to keep his seams from popping.
Quick to re-manifest that same everyman enthusiasm he crafted with Reynolds on Free Guy, the pair handshake their way through insane action sequences, often merged with fitting “dad rock” tracks, jostling them back into that hard-bound driver’s seat. Reynolds starts to feel his age at points here, though not to any physical overexertion. But to a stage where snark is readily exchanged for sage wisdom, extended to his youthful counterpart. Newcomer Scobell takes all of that in effervescent stride, a very firm chip on his shoulder picking up more than a few of Reynolds’ tricks.
Those in the wings of Levy’s supporting cast can only follow elder Adam’s lead, staying on their toes, waiting for an appropriate time to leap. Those chances don’t pop up all too often, and cherished when they do. Inadvertently, they solidify Garner’s place in this film, pulling an almost Steenburgen in a brief bar scene where Reynolds consoles her frustrated nerves. And no doubt igniting a glimpse of reconnection when she and the steady Ruffalo commit to their all-too-fleeting 13 Going on 30 mini-reunion. Saldana earns so little screen time, for how much Reynolds fawns over their shared prior affections, and yet she doesn’t hesitate to press hard on the trigger. Keener’s a lame duck in the villain character, her random appearance and jarring dual role (as present and future iterations of herself) only slowing down Levy’s momentum. It even makes her athletic goons look palatable by comparison. And it hurts to admit that.
And the overwhelming familiarities do not cease on acting merits, as Levy strikes for that natural, earthy quality of mid-80s Spielberg. Myriad of peaceful outdoor locations (rubber-stamped by dense BC forests) dot the landscape, to stay grounded to an otherwise sound Earth. CG effects do not propose much of a distraction from that, Keener’s apparent de-aging to sell the “dual sides” motif being a lone exception. Veteran DP Tobias Schliessler (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) further broadens his creative high bar, holding each element, real or fabricated to a certain standard of visual balance for Levy’s focus. The careful notation of composer Rob Simonsen (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) completes the picture both sonically and tonally with a Silvestri-esque plangency.
What Levy returns to with all those extra avenues and a trifle of missed opportunities is a loving heart where to travel back in time equates to that hope for a second chance at love, to perhaps be different than who we are, who we were in the past. And how father-son relationships can often fortify reconstruction of character. That’s often a life-long process for many, and The Adam Project latches onto that idea with growing gusto, and a mushy center pushing forward. Its awkward execution does leave momentum behind, to lessen its promise as a perfect family night pick. A bold one all the same, with its pivot of communication wrapped in a stirring sci-fi adventure. Levy effectively continues with his extended workout as a captain of mainstream all-quad filmmaking, and Reynolds slowly returns to terra firma as age is wont to dictate. Despite the lengths it won’t go, where it ends up does make for a satisfying, re-watchable journey. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The Adam Project debuts on Netflix and in select theaters (locally at Bellevue’s Cinemark Lincoln Square) March 11; rated PG-13 for violence/action, language and suggestive references; 106 minutes.