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Fun But Forgettable Time-Travel Dramedy ‘The Adam Project’ Is One Big Sci-Fi Remix

The Adam Project trailer with Ryan Reynolds
Image CreditNetflix/YouTube

In Ryan Reynolds’ latest sci-fi action dramedy, ‘Back to the Future’ meets ‘E.T.’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ But it’s a rough ride for families.

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Some things, only science fiction can do. 

Released Friday on Netflix, “The Adam Project” tells a multi-generational story involving time travel, parallel contact (that’s meeting your past self), and some pretty cool futuristic combat scenes with high-tech weapons. In the end, all this sizzle is about family stuff: making time for kids, reuniting with your spouse, and honoring the sacrifices of parents.

“I feel like our storytelling and film industry has evolved to a point where there are escapist popcorn movies or there are movies about big ideas that are resonant and important,” commented the film’s director Shawn Levy (“Night of the Museum”). “But the movies we loved from the past somehow were able to be both.”

He referenced “Back to the Future” and “E.T.” among several family sci-fi films that “The Adam Project” borrows from liberally. Producer-star Ryan Reynolds added: “Nostalgia is the greatest drug on earth, and this movie very much steps in the existing footprint of those films.”

Viewers are introduced to a boy (newcomer Walker Scobell) without a father being bullied despite the best efforts of his mother (Jennifer Garner), echoing several iconic Spielberg movies. The tropes keep coming: time travel without any scientific explanation, hiding a mysterious figure from mom, the wonder of first flight, and Marvel-style bloodless battles against faceless aliens. 

It’s not the first time these producers have partnered up to meld other movies’ plot points and highlights. Last year’s “Free Guy,” successful enough to get a sequel green light, pulled in big ideas from sci-fi trendsetters (“Tron,” “Her,” “Ready Player One”), genre classics (“The Truman Show,” “The Matrix”), and goofy kids films (“The LEGO Movie,” “Wreck It Ralph 2”). 

Parents may find it helpful to see they market this as “from the producers of ‘Free Guy.’” Just as off-color humor in that movie was off-putting for some, coarse language may be too much here.

Quest to Heal Generational Rifts 

As a family-centric sci-fi actioner, “The Adam Project” tells a worthwhile story about muddling through and finding courage when life throws you devastating losses. Reynolds’ central role is as an older version of the boy from the future, and the two embark on an adventure across time.

To sell it, they gave child actor Scobell brown-colored contact lenses to match the star and had him mimic Reynolds’ schtick. While grating at times, it works to synchronize the two characters.

This wish-fulfillment of making peace with your younger self plays a central role, as Levy says. “What hooked me in was the idea of: What if you could make your peace with your own history? What if you could, as an adult, go back and … make your peace with the parents we failed to understand when we were growing up?”

He just described the plot of “The Kid,” a Disney comedy starring Bruce Willis that hits many of the same emotional beats as this flick though without all the action. It’s a bit talky to hold the attention of young kids, but the gut-punch at the end lands harder than here.

Even so, viewers of “The Adam Project” will sense this movie comes from the personal experiences of the filmmakers including the top-billed star. “My father passed away years ago,” said Reynolds. “I realized that the reason I was really mad at my father wasn’t because he was a bad guy or because had screwed up as a dad — it was because he died.”

In the film, Reynolds’ character goes back and meets his dad (Mark Ruffalo) when they’re about the same age. As peers, they work through tensions — both personal and intergalactic — to unmask a villain threatening the world in multiple timelines. 

‘A New Kind of Family’ 

Knowing this film is being promoted as an all-ages outing, screening it brings to mind how the Family Channel changed corporate owners multiple times. Under Disney, that cable network (today Freeform) used the slogan “A new kind of family” and aged up their lineup to feature TV-14 shows like “Greek” and “Pretty Little Liars.” 

That seems to be Ryan Reynolds’ brand. From R-rated “Deadpool” movies to last year’s “Free Guy,” his films tend to have more coarse language and innuendo than their plots require. Similar to last year’s “The Tomorrow War,” which had some mature content, parents may want to pre-screen “The Adam Project” before allowing young kids to see it. Cursing is frequent, as it has a couple of F-bombs and characters misuse the Lord’s name about a dozen times. 

Closely related to this cheapening of dialogue is how often humor is used to undercut real emotion. Following a brief scene of characters sharing what they feel and why — this film has a few powerful ones — Reynolds’ style is to end it with a wisecrack rather than let it be and allow viewers to ponder what it means. We can blame Marvel movies, I suppose.

That said, anyone who enjoys modern genre storytelling will find a lot to like here. Exactly when and how the sci-fi elements come into play makes for some surprises. Cinematography and design choices are eye-catching. Reynolds and his younger self have great rapport. And Zoe Saldaña shines in her action-heavy role as wife to Reynolds’ character.

Similar to other cast members, co-star Ruffalo stated that he signed on because he connects with the story themes. “Honestly, having teenage kids and spending so much time away from home over the years working, you just come to know how badly kids need their dads,” he said. “Those relationships are really the most important thing at the end of the day.” 

Most viewers will find “The Adam Project” an enjoyable ride, despite it trading so much on other films. But, reflecting today’s fast-moving streaming world, will it still register in a few months?

Rated PG-13 for violence/action, language, and suggestive references, “The Adam Project” is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.