In Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds starred as a non-player videogame character who breaks free of his programming to score himself a life and make a difference to a joyless world. Reuniting with the director on The Adam Project, another high-concept, highly derivative clutch of ideas from mostly better movies, Reynolds again tries to escape his programming by juggling his usual glib shtick with off-brand sincerity. That’s as hard to buy as the film’s awkward mashup of time-travel mayhem with sudsy melodrama about a fractured family’s path to healing.
As Netflix has shown repeatedly with the non-prestige end of its original film output — for instance, Red Notice, also featuring Reynolds on smirking autopilot — subscribers will eat up these star-driven concoctions no matter how recycled the plotting, making the movies more or less review-proof. That no doubt will prove to be the case again here.
The Adam Project
The Bottom Line
A weary wormhole full of goopy sentiment.
The original script was by Jonathan Tropper, who wrote the novel and screenplay that became Levy’s swiftly forgotten 2014 feature This is Where I Leave You, a stale family comedy-drama more interesting for its starry ensemble than for anything they were given to do. The addition of T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin on the screenwriting team here presumably was intended to punch up the sci-fi elements and tailor the humor to Reynolds’ strengths. But the result is neither funny nor thrilling, just exhausting.
Reynolds plays Adam Reed, introduced in 2050 under attack in space while stealing a fighter jet capable of jumping through wormholes in time. Since it’s apparently now compulsory for all futuristic screen material to be accompanied by retro pop from, like, before anyone watching was born, this unfolds to The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Later, there’s also vintage Led Zeppelin and Boston. Kewl.
Back in 2022, 12-year-old Adam (Walker Scobell) is an ace gamer but also a small-for-his-age kid who’s not too intimidated by Ray (Braxton Bjerken), the middle-school thug who regularly beats him up, to respond with a mouthful of smart-assy sarcasm: “Who talks like that? Did you order, like, a bully starter kit on Amazon or something?” This of course is necessary to provide Reynolds-trademark continuity with 40-year-old Adam. But it has the inadvertent effect of also making a bullied, asthmatic kid, still hurting over the loss of his father a year earlier, curiously unsympathetic, even borderline obnoxious.
When young Adam is threatened with expulsion for the third time, his exasperated mom Ellie (Jennifer Garner, doing what she can with a thankless stock part) warns him: “Do you care about your future? Son, you better start caring because the future is coming sooner than you think.” OMG, what could she mean?
That subtle cue opens a hole in the time-space continuum for Big Adam to fall through, crash-landing in the woods behinds the Reed family’s house in Nondescript, Anyplace. He was aiming for 2018, in time to save his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña), but a bullet in the guts and spacecraft damage threw him four years off course. That makes not one but two grieving versions of Adam whose pain is trivialized by their quippy banter.
After Little Adam stops kvelling about how he got so buff, they bond over their disgruntlement about their workaholic dad never having had time for them. But Big Adam also intervenes to try to bridge the distance between Ellie, too spent to tend to her own hurt, and her preteen son.
With help from Laura, who conveniently returns without much logistical explanation, they temporarily fend off air assaults from a mothership piloted by monopolistic time-travel corporate overlord Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener, why?) and manned by her nefarious head of security Christos (Alex Mallari Jr.) and an army of time soldiers. Because Big Adam’s injuries cause his DNA to be rejected by his jet’s operating system, he needs Little Adam to accompany him as he makes the intended hop back to 2018.
That’s where they meet their dad, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a college science professor geeking out over discoveries that will lead to time-travel breakthroughs. His work is funded by — you guessed it — Maya, who’s still reluctantly apprenticing in evil at this point. We know Louis is not really a neglectful dad because he has the rumpled hair and distressed denim look of an artist on a Sundance fellowship. And his favorite song is Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” which he owns on vinyl. Also because he’s cuddly Mark Ruffalo. He’s too pure to have any idea of the chaos that time-travel will unleash in the future, which Big Adam describes as like Terminator, on a good day.
To get to the warm and fuzzy resolution about the difference between angry and sad, you first need to avoid slipping into a coma during lots of numbing talk of electromagnetic particle accelerators and neuromorphic processors. You also need to remain on board while both Adams crack wise during one near-death experience after another, usually involving clunky CG spacecraft, a suspense-free clash in the cavernous Sorian tech lab where Young Adam’s gamer skills come in handy and a lot of cheesy effects as time soldiers evaporate into pretty rainbow-colored dust. Despite their Robocop-style armor, these guys seem remarkably easy to neutralize, sometimes by little more than tripping them up.
Levy’s comments in the press notes suggest he’s convinced there are big father-son issues being explored here in ways raw and real, as does the casting of the wildly over-qualified Ruffalo. (Of the ensemble, Saldaña comes off best, possibly because she doesn’t stick around all that long.) But a big, dumb lug of a movie that cribs from the Bruce Willis vehicle The Kid, Back to the Future and too many other sci-fi titles to list — and has a protagonist so smugly self-aware that none of his feelings ring true — isn’t really engineered for emotional investment. And everything else is too pedestrian to generate excitement.