'The Adam Project' Review: Netflix's 'Back to the Future' for the Marvel Era

Time travelers Ryan Reynolds, Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in a frothy but heartfelt family romp, streaming on Netflix now.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Zoe Saldana and Ryan Reynolds take aim in The Adam Project on Netflix.

Sci-fi stars Zoe Saldana and Ryan Reynolds take aim in Netflix movie The Adam Project.

Doane Gregory/Netflix

The Adam Project is about a guy time-traveling back to meet himself as a kid, which is perfect because it's basically a trip back to the family adventures of the 1980s. Free Guy and Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds stars as a wisecracking time-flyer in Netflix's breezy but heartfelt version of ET, Back to the Future and Flight of the Navigator for the Marvel generation.

The new flick is streaming on Netflix now. It's a fast-moving, family-friendly sci-fi romp reteaming Reynolds with director Shawn Levy after last year's hit Free Guy, and it has a lot of that same infectious video game energy. Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner also star.

Newcomer Walker Scobell plays the young Adam, a weedy wiseass who's basically a magnet for bullying. Less than 10 minutes into the film, he's exploring the woods with a flashlight, putting us solidly into ET territory. But instead of a good-natured alien, he finds an injured Reynolds, who knows rather a lot about him. The pair trade quips as Reynolds once again does his exasperated smart-ass thing (familiar from Deadpool as well as various Netflix flicks like Red Notice and 6 Underground). Only this time, the buddy comedy bounces off a pint-size mirror image.  

This visitor from the future has brought some unwelcome guests, and cue some flashy fight scenes with Reynolds stylishly kicking ass. There's a lot of fun to be had with his futuristic not-a-lightsaber weapon, though it all feels a bit low-stakes as the endless platoon of faceless bad guys just evaporate in bright colors like video game sprites turning into showers of coins. Still, that makes it suitable for the little ones to watch alongside older kids and parents, all of whom should find something to enjoy.

Probably the film's biggest strength is the amount of time it spends establishing the emotional stakes. Before the bad guys start shooting, The Adam Project explores how young Adam is dealing with the loss of his father. A scene in which Reynolds meets his mom, played by Garner, is given room to breathe, and the result is that the rest of the film's fast-paced action is underpinned by genuine warmth. Saldana and Reynolds also share some heartbreaking moments, though Saldana is criminally underused (and this is one of those films where you wonder if the secondary character's off-screen story might not have been more interesting than the main character).

Walker Scobell and Ryan Reynolds talk to themselves in The Adam Project.

Walker Scobell and Ryan Reynolds talk to themselves in The Adam Project.


It's a nice detail that the timey-wimey explanation of how time travel works also ties into the emotion. From Looper to The Tomorrow War, every time travel movie has to come up with some silly explanation for why people remember stuff (or don't remember stuff) or why people's actions change things (or don't change things). In this case, there's some fluff about fixed points in time, but that also means everyone has a special place. It's a neat example of taking a bit of plot logistics and making it part of the emotional theme.

Of course, nobody really cares about the time travel stuff. Apart from a throwaway line about the Terminator, it's never explained with any conviction why the future is so terrible, which makes it hard to care about the running round and saving the world. Catherine Keener does some compelling stuff as a villain who acts as the devil on the shoulder of her own younger self, even if her who-cares evil scheme is basically the plot of Back to the Future 2.

While the action and whizbang visual effects are pretty lightweight -- and the script glosses over its own sci-fi concept with barely a wave of a not-quite-lightsaber -- The Adam Project is frothy fun as Reynolds, Ruffalo and Saldana bicker genially. And this entertaining family adventure is anchored by real emotion as the time-traveling family grapples with love and loss. If your kids want some zippy sci-fi action and you need a break from superheroes, The Adam Project is worth making time for.  

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