Over the years, the preponderance of time travel movies has led to certain rules, although not all films agree. Some films warn characters never to interact with their younger selves. Some films say characters shouldn’t do anything that would alter their future timeline, while others throw caution to the wind, positing that time is a fixed loop no matter what. And the films themselves have to be entertaining, because imagining time travel shouldn’t be a drag.
The new Netflix film The Adam Project references those rules and more along its imperfect journey. Twelve-year-old Adam (Walker Scobell) is living an okay-if-somewhat sad life in 2022 with his mom, Ellie, (Jennifer Garner), as both are still grieving the death of Adam’s dad, Louis (Mark Ruffalo). A quiet night at home alone for Adam is interrupted by the sudden appearance of his 40-year-old self (Ryan Reynolds), who’s on a very personal mission.
Both the older Adam and his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña), are pilots in a future time travel program run by Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener). When a trip back in time goes awry for Laura, Adam goes rogue in search of her, accidentally ending up at his old house in the process. With no choice but to involve his younger self when the powers-that-be come after him, the two Adams work together to try to achieve the older Adam’s goal.
Reynolds re-teams with his Free Guy director, Shawn Levy, for this film, with about as much success as that middling entry. The biggest mistake the filmmakers, which includes a quartet of writers, make is that they take the allure of time travel for granted. Aside from a brief moment of shock, the younger Adam expresses close to zero wonder at interacting with his older self. Likewise, the older Adam is disillusioned with the whole concept of time travel, putting a sour note on the overall plot.
There is also a bit too much going on with the story. There’s the sci-fi element, one that’s shown but not really explained. There’s the emotional family part, which scores some points, but gets less screentime than it should. There’s the romantic angle with older Adam and Laura, which never truly lands. And there’s an evil corporation subplot, one that never makes sense, especially in the context of this particular time travel film.
And so the film winds up as just a mish-mash of semi-interesting scenes, ones that are individually watchable but never coalesce as a compelling whole. My mind started turning to a variety of things not related to the story, such as how Reynolds can be so charming yet rarely be in a movie that matches his charisma. Or how it’s nice that they cast Garner and Ruffalo — who were paired romantically in 13 Going on 30 — as a married couple, but wonder why they only share one scene together. Or how the film makes perhaps the worse use of de-aging technology yet when showing a younger version of Keener.
Reynolds, as mentioned, has an appeal that’s magnetic, but this is yet another example of that only being good enough to make half a good movie. Scobell does well in his acting debut, although his part is mostly in deference to that of Reynolds. Garner makes the most impact of the supporting cast, while Saldaña, Ruffalo, and Keener needed to have their parts fleshed out a bit more.
Time travel movies can bring up lots of mind-bending ideas, which is often half the fun of those stories. The Adam Project only hints at that kind of thinking, and consequently it never rises to the level of other, better movies with similar stories.
The Adam Project debuts on Netflix and in select theaters on March 11.