‘The Adam Project’: Ryan Reynolds Goes Back to the Future

There are nods to VHS classics like 'E.T.' and 'Star Wars,' but the best part may be the '13 Going on 30' reunion ofJennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo

Walker Scobell (l) as young Adam and Ryan Reynolds as less-young Adam Doane Gregory/Netflix

There’s a real sense of nostalgia embedded in Shawn Levy’s The Adam Project, a family-friendly sci-fi adventure that pays tribute to films like Back to the Future and E.T. It’s the sort of thing you might have gathered on the sofa to watch on VHS on a Friday night in the ‘80s, which is as much of a recommendation for the film as some may need. For those who need more convincing, there are several other key draws, namely Ryan Reynolds, who stars and produces. The actor plays a wise-cracking fighter pilot from 2050, who accidentally crash-lands back in 2022, where he encounters his 12-year-old self (played by Walker Scobel). It’s the sort of the set-up that’s ripe for comedy, but also for poignant reflection as Adam is—quite literally—faced with his past.

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THE ADAM PROJECT ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Written by: Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, Walker Scobell, Catherine Keener, Zoe Saldaña
Running time: 106 mins.

In 2022, Adam has just been suspended from school for fighting, although he wasn’t so much fighting as being sucker punched by bullies. His dad has died a year before, leaving him alone with his mom Ellie (Jennifer Garner). Young Adam is just as wise-cracking as his older self, which often puts him at odds with those around him, and he’s hardened himself against his mom. Mostly, he plays video games and hangs out with his dog, Hawking, unwilling to fully acknowledge the grief that clearly consumes him. His adult self isn’t doing much better. Adam’s wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), vanished while time traveling to 2018, the year he’s actually trying to reach, and his accumulated repressed grief has transformed into a punchy sort of anger. Not to mention a severe woman named Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) is hot on his tail with vanishing spaceships and futuristic soldiers. 

It might sound easy to predict where this story is going, but Levy keeps things surprising, even in the more expected emotional moments. A scene in a bar where the elder Adam encounters his mom, drinking white wine alone and commiserating with the bartender over her son’s troubled demeanor is especially effective in conveying how much regret can linger. What should you have said when it mattered? What happens if you don’t? And how do you reconcile having hurt someone you love, so long ago? These questions resonate at the heart of The Adam Project, which is as much about family as it is about time travel.  

Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo Doane Gregory/Netflix

The best part of the movie is, of course, the reunion of Garner and Mark Ruffalo, who plays Adam’s father Louis in 2018. Is there a universe in which Adam is actually the child of Jenna Rink and Matt Flamhaff in 13 Going on 30? It’s clever casting, as is Ruffalo playing a scientist who inadvertently invents time travel. Although Avengers: Endgame is never mentioned by name, young Adam questions his older self about the mechanics of quantum jumping, suggesting the existence of the multiverse. (Older Adam ignores the query and tells himself not to watch so many movies.) Levy cleverly avoids getting bogged down in the minutia of time travel—the film operates around the principle that if you change the past, it will impact the future—and instead keeps The Adam Project light-hearted and fun. There are nods to Stars Wars and the aforementioned Back to the Future, and action is full-on, with dynamic fight scenes and explosive chase sequences. 

Still, for all its adventure and flash, The Adam Project welcomes feelings. Levy doesn’t shy away from heart-warming, tear-jerker scenes, just like those beloved films of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Reynolds is essentially a brand at this point, and here Ryan Reynolds is doing Ryan Reynolds, which largely works. But he also knows when to sink into the more emotional moments. Scobell impressively holds his own against the movie star and the pair have a really entertaining back and forth. But more importantly, together they believably play with the idea that sometimes you have to call yourself out on your own shit. To make peace with your past, sometimes you have to confront it. And sometimes, even if you don’t have the benefit of time travel, it confronts you back with a surprisingly wise sentiment. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘The Adam Project’: Ryan Reynolds Goes Back to the Future