Modern filmmakers borrow so much from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Robert Zemeckis, I’m beginning to wonder if they’ve worked out some kinda payment plan for the royalties. Either that, or the studios figure our collective itch for the nostalgia of E.T., Goonies, and Back to the Future is so strong, they might scratch it with another big-budget homage. The Adam Project reheats the childlike wonder of those films, while also adding a dystopian future and a variation of Big‘s body-swap narrative. The result is an unremarkable movie that gets some elevation from a few all-star performances and some (mostly) great special effects. Otherwise, The Adam Project simply stands on the shoulders of giants.
It’s the year 2050, and humanity has settled into a high-tech hellscape. Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) is an evil businesswoman who pretty much rules the planet. As the film begins, Adam Reed (Ryan Reynolds) is a hotshot pilot in a stolen plane. He activates a wormhole and warps back in time, all the way to the good ol’ days of 2022. There, in a coincidence that could only be cooked up by a platoon of over-caffeinated screenwriters, Adam stumbles upon his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell). Seriously wounded, older Adam enlists his younger version to treat his wounds and get on with the present mission. Or, the past mission. Whatever. Young Adam buys into this whacked-out situation a little too fast, mainly because this is a 106-minute movie and we’ve got shit to slow up. So, you know, onward and upward…
Turns out, young Adam’s not doing so great. His dad (Mark Ruffalo) died a couple years ago, and the boy is still lashing out in misplaced anger. Most of these negative emotions get hurled toward his mother (Jennifer Garner), who doesn’t know how to handle her unruly son. When older Adam crashes in the woods outside his childhood house, he finds troubled, insecure boy in need of a little guidance. Of course, adult Adam has much bigger things on his agenda.
I don’t want to spoil too many of The Adam Project‘s twists and bends, but some of this agenda involves Laura (Zoe Saldaña), Adam’s missing wife. She’s somewhere in the past, although we don’t know if this exile was by choice. Also, Sorian may or may not have made like Biff in Back to the Future II, so the Adams have to investigate a potential pollution in the timeline.
Trust me, the pop culture references are just getting warmed up. Adam plunges headfirst into 80s nostalgia, and I’m not just talking about the nods to Star Wars, Top Gun, and Terminator in the dialogue. Director Shawn Levy loves the Spielbergian look of overpowered flashlights darting around a fern-covered forest. I’m shocked there wasn’t a trail of Reece’s Pieces and a purring alien somewhere in these scenes. (I’m not shocked to find that Levy directed multiple episodes of Stranger Things.) Plus, after the dense techno-hooey of Avengers: Endgame, Levy reverts to the simplistic vibe of Back to the Future, where killing one’s past self also wipes out their future. I can’t say this approach makes a whole lot more sense, but it does give the action more immediate stakes.
Levy does deliver some solid action beats, mostly in the vein of Edge of Oblivion and Minority Report. All the brawls stay fairly easy to follow. If there’s a quibble, it lies with the rendering of Sorian’s younger self. The filmmakers clearly used some kind of deepfake technique to show a younger Keener, and it is not convincing in the slightest. Her eyes have that dead Polar Express look, and it’s pretty distracting. For an otherwise competent little action film, an overly digitized villain is a pretty big debit.
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Adam is at its strongest when Reynolds and Scobell share the screen, which is a good chunk of the movie. The story veers a little toward Big (plus Garner and Ruffalo’s 13 Going on 30), and all those other body-swap movies: Young Adam gets a preview of himself as a buff, confident man, while the adult version gets to confront and patch up the mistakes of his childhood. Reynolds and Scobell forge a strong chemistry, and the film even manages to rustle up a few genuine emotions.
When it’s all said and done, The Adam Project is a perfectly decent experience. It’s also fairly disposable: In a few months, will you remember anything about it? I know I won’t. In fact, I’d much rather this were either a masterpiece or a total atrocity. At least those are fun to write about. The classic movies that inspired this one endured because they swung for the fences. Adam aims for a safe, cushy middle ground, and that ends up being its biggest flaw.
106 min. PG-13. Netflix.