Pathos and action are found in equal parts in "The Adam Project," the latest attempt by Netflix to create the kind of throwback blockbuster that you might have paid to see in movie theaters.
Starring Ryan Reynolds as a time traveling pilot and directed by Shawn Levy, the movie takes the old cliché about what you'd tell your younger self and adds PG-13 snark, space action, "Guardians of the Galaxy" energy, a megalomaniac businesswoman, a dead father and a lost love to the mix. And it's pretty satisfying popcorn fare with some genuinely affecting beats. All that's missing is some Harry Chapin.
This is a project that has been around for a decade — at one point Tom Cruise was attached. But it languished in development and rewrites (there are four screenwriters credited and Jonathan Tropper is the last to have touched it) until Netflix acquired it and in less than two years it's a finished product.
In "The Adam Project," we're introduced to a 40-something Adam (Reynolds) in the middle of a space chase. He's quick-witted and unflappable, so it's supposed to be jarring to cut back to see middle school Adam (Walker Scobell in his debut) as the little guy with the big mouth who is prone to getting in fights and losing.
Adam and his mom (Jennifer Garner) are hanging on by a thread in the year after they lost his dad (Mark Ruffalo) in an accident. But before things get too real, adult Adam shows up in the past at their house and breaks all the known time travel rules when he accidentally runs into young Adam. This is a movie universe in which "Back to the Future 2" exists.
Adult Adam isn't there for young Adam, he just needs to treat his wound before going to look for his wife (Zoe Saldaña). The older self is dismissive, the younger one is desperate to know when he'll start getting ripped and having luck with girls. Reynolds and Scobell are a good match.
And of course adult Adam is on a journey to make peace with his younger self and his parents — Mom takes five minutes at a bar (it's a good scene) and Dad takes the rest of the film. This is ultimately a film about boys and their dads.
Levy is a director who has found a successful lane in studio-made crowd pleasers like "Date Night," "Night at the Museum" and "Free Guy," which also starred Reynolds. While they might not be the kind of things that are taught in film school, they do have their place as uncynical, nostalgic and rewatchable popcorn fare (even Amblin-esque, if we must) with just enough heart to make you feel like you haven't consumed junk food.
But nostalgia can be a tricky game for people outside of the dominant group and "The Adam Project" filmmakers could benefit from a little post-game introspection about the fact that they've made a loving film about family and forgiveness and made the villain a highly successful businesswoman (Catherine Keener) whose origin story stems from her bitterness about having no husband or children because she devoted her life to work.
Keener looks like she's having enough fun among the special effects and a de-aged version of herself. But it's hard to shake the feeling that we've somehow gone back to another staple of 1980s films that should have stayed in the past: When single, childless career women were the threats to marriages and domesticity. This, I'm certain, is not part of the retro vibe they were going for but unfortunately they did.
Levy has said he wants his films to have ideas in them, and while there's some nice ones in "The Adam Project," the existence of Keener's character signals that ladies better find time for kids and mates before it's too late.
In other words, "The Adam Project" should have taken a note from one of its own lessons: The only way to save the future is to reconcile with the past.
"The Adam Project," a Netflix release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "Language, violence, action and suggestive references." Running time: 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.