Frankly, it’s amazing that it has taken so long for anyone to weaponize Ryan Reynolds’ wiseass wind-up toy routine toward straightforward, effective defense-mechanism drama (or at least to do so without also stunt-casting Morgan Freeman as his father). It’s even more amazing that said someone is director Shawn Levy, an acolyte of the anodyne who spent three Nights at the Museum, had no feel for Real Steel, and took a break from filmmaking at all from 2014 to 2021. But so go two of several pleasantly surprising pleasures of The Adam Project, which begins streaming tomorrow (3/11) on Netflix.

As goes the output of Ryan Reynolds, Netflix Troop Leader, The Adam Project is a step below the popped-bottle bacchanal of bad taste that is 6 Underground and a full skyscraper above his Dwayne Johnson collaboration, the gargantuan doohickey of digitally shiny nothingness known as Red Notice. As a reunion of Reynolds and Levy after their 2021 hit Free Guy, it trades that film’s often tiresome TikTok-ishness for a simpler and sweeter story (even as it also apes Star Wars in its own mercifully quieter ways). As a time-travel movie, place it in the tertiary tier alongside The Tomorrow War as something better than you might have ever expected.

Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a badly injured pilot in a stolen jet circa 2050 who narrowly pulls off a time jump to what he hopes is 2018 but is instead 2022. After crashing in some Washington State woods (a warm resurrection of 2000s-era Fox Forest vibes for those who celebrate), Adam is soon discovered by … well, himself — or the 12-year-old version of himself, played by a well-cast Walker Scobell. 

Young Adam’s nose regularly pays his mouth’s debts, so he’s just been suspended from school for a third time because of fighting. “Yeah, you’d think I’d be better at it by now,” he tells Ellie (Jennifer Garner), his beleaguered mother and a widow who has raised Adam on her own for several years. It doesn’t take long for young Adam to figure out adult Adam is the future him (or prioritize, as a 12-year-old might, inquiries about eventual romances over time-travel intricacy).

Like many time-travel tales, The Adam Project gloms on more gobbledygook than required. Its climax takes place on a conveniently depopulated college campus and is just another attempt to yank a dangerous whatchamacallit from a malfunctioning whosiewhatsit. It’s entirely possible that Catherine Keener — who puts a PG-13 spin on Joan Allen’s icy shtick from 2008’s Death Race into a megalomaniacal time master — was somehow green-screened into this from her home. But the narrative boils down to fixing short- and long-term futures by tinkering with the past and young Adam’s present. (“We’ve seen The Terminator, right?,” adult Adam asks. “That’s 2050 on a good day.”)

The Adam Project also abides by its title’s dual-meaning implication of improvement drama more deeply than you’d expect. Adult Adam’s damaged ship must be repaired before any time hijinks commence, and the film uses that downtime to root both Adams’ pursuits in a palpable bedrock of regret and remorse. That takes precedence over a rigmarole of requisite action, although second-unit legend Brian Smrz lets those beats bruise without bristling against the rating. Here, the accumulating momentum of anger and anxiety wallops harder than any futuristic whipping stick. In a prototypical screenplay by committee, the guiding hand feels like that of Jonathan Tropper — who somehow blends the emotional honesty of This is Where I Leave You (adapted from his own book and also directed by Levy) with the flashy fisticuffs of Banshee (the most underrated series on HBO Max you’ve probably never watched).

Although Reynolds delivers the funniest threat from a grown man to a young bully since Colin Farrell in True Detective, those who tire of him easily will find this more like Van Milder. “Things happened to you, to us, and we suck at dealing with it,” adult Adam says before a sweet scene in which he expresses remorse for the respectless rat-a-tat he rocketed at Ellie as a kid. It’s a terrific moment between Reynolds and Garner, who play this purposefully anonymous therapy session just right; after all, no need for time-wave repercussions. It’s not just about adult Adam apologizing for being a little asshole. It’s about Ellie recognizing that it’s OK to share her grief with her son even if she doesn’t think he’s ready. In its own way, The Adam Project possesses a higher emotional IQ than the Back to the Future films — realizing that changing the terrible things that happen to us isn’t inherently the solution of a time-travel story. It’s effectively keyed into the absences we hope to absolve and the yearning vacancies of the genre.

There are other characters here, namely adult Adam’s wife (lost to time) and the patriarch to both Adams. The fame of their faces assures they will show up in the flesh. No spoilers on who plays them or how they factor in, other than to say they are seasoned, and welcome, veterans of such fare. These performers have a good time whupping lackeys, sassing adult Adam (in a tight jacket, he’s referred to as “a condom with buttons”), or, in an unexpectedly affecting finale, bringing home the film’s thesis.

There is importance to both the connections of life that we lose and the subsequent pain that comes. It’s always easier to be angry about that than it is to be sad. Choosing the former only gets more corrosive as we age. Most Reynolds movies would use dick jokes to deflect the depth of a moment in which one man tells another that he loves him, without reservation or equivocation. Here, it’s played for maximum poignance. Whatever contrivances and conveniences ripple throughout The Adam Project can be forgiven amid its concentration on the context of a strong family story.