Netflix brings together Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener – all from the director of Free Guy.

Count me amongst those who didn’t see this one coming. For around a decade, The Adam Project has been bumbling around in development hell, at one time interesting Tom Cruise in starring, but eventually being offloaded by Paramount to Netflix in the middle of 2020.

It’s understandable why Paramount might have figured this one a tough sell. It’s a standalone science fiction adventure, not based on any kind of pre-existing property (the script is credited to Jonathan Tropper, T S Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin), that’s the latest in a long line of movies to try and capture the elusive ‘Amblin’ feel of the 1980s. Ryan Reynolds headlines, again understandable, given how he does mainstream wisecracks as well as anyone, even if it seems he does them a lot without necessarily feeling that he’s stretching himself. And the film hinges on an unknown young talent too, Walker Scobell.

Sure, the cast is beefed up with a very welcome ensemble, including Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, Catherine Keener and Zoe Saldana. But from the outside looking in, the whole thing has three stars written all over it.

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Here’s the twist to the story though: The Adam Project is really, really good. It’s the best live action family adventure I can remember in some time, and at the point the credits rolled – once I’d pulled myself together – I would have quite happily gone back to the start and watched the whole thing again.

On the surface then, the film is a fun, derivative time travel adventure. Ryan Reynolds is Adam, the version from the year 2050, who ends up back in 2022 when he needs help from, well, Adam. The 2022 version, played by Scobell. It’s quickly established that there’s a future to be saved, and it’s all wrestled around the screen with fine effects work, sequences where you can see what’s going on, and Reynolds doing what Reynolds does. It’s funny, breezy, and entertaining, with a dose of time travel rules explanation thrown in for reasonable measure. Catherine Keener is furthermore employed to be the villain of the piece, and in truth is as shortchanged as villains in big films increasingly seem to be.

But there’s another side to this. 2022 Adam has just lost his father, and his mum, Ellie – the excellent Jennifer Garner – is struggling to reconnect with him. She’s trying to be the best mum she can, whilst breaking a little on the inside, and putting on the best front she can for her son. 2050 Adam’s future has been shaped by this, and he arrives in 2022 – are you still following? – with a whole lot of regrets, damage and knowledge. But, y’know, time travel rules.

I’m not going to talk any more about the plot, even though large parts of it are out there. I knew nothing going in, and it was a lovely way to see the film. For I’ve seen lots of these family-ish adventures over the years that try to work out how a subset of films of the 1980s endures. The Adam Project is one of the very, very few that understands why.

It’s not just that the film is entertaining and doesn’t outstay its running time. It’s also got a thorough understanding of stakes, and making them relatable. What the aforementioned screenplay balances isn’t just the tickbox stuff – as well as it’s done – demanded by a blockbuster movie, but it’s also fundamentally about relationships in a struggling family. Remember how the delightful animation Captain Underpants could have been about saving the world, but instead focused its plot on two friends who were split up in class, which was the worst thing in the world that could have happened to them? Or how The Goonies was effectively about saving a house to keep a bunch of family and friends together?

The Adam Project is in that mould. Not in some shoehorned way: instead, in a manner that’s organic to the story, that’s really well handled, and that gives as much agency to Garner’s character as it does the assorted Adams.

If anything, it’s the wisecracks and the occasional action sequence that gets in the way at one or two points here – as fun as Keener is, the whole villain bit is the least memorable part, and much of the surface story feels familiar – with the rest of the film utterly grounded even as the world comes under threat.

(One aside: if you like this, do seek out the little-seen Australia family comedy H Is For Happiness, that also has a bunch of good people in the midst of a broken family. It came and went in the UK in double quick time, and it’s a delight waiting to be discovered).

A further clue as to why this all works can be found behind the camera. Director Shawn Levy has previously collaborated with Reynolds on the fun Free Guy, but dig back to 2011’s Real Steel – again, a film that put heart over spectacle – and that’s a trilogy of family movies there that I’d suggest nobody else can match in live action over the last decade or so.

I think The Adam Project is his best film though. It’s not that it isn’t easy to drive holes in if you’re so inclined: but I can only tell it as I found it. And I found it really quite moving, with moments that will comfortably outlive the film too. I’d also suggest that this is one of Ryan Reynolds’ very best blockbuster performances.

Like the very best family movies, The Adam Project exists on more than one level. Here, the difference is that the levels aren’t about jokes that kids won’t get, and action that’ll leave the adults cold. Instead, one level is a fun enough sci-fi movie. The other is one of the most memorable family live action movies in a many years.

I never expected to write these as the final words, but what a delight to be able to do so: The Adam Project is really pretty special.

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