Teenage romance. Time travel. Found footage. Usually any one of those three elements is enough to sink a movie to subterranean levels if handled badly. In a typical display of misguided teenage bravura though, the Michael Bay produced Project Almanac takes on all three at the same time in a film that may occasionally be fun and engaging, but also sabotages its own efforts.
Playing out like the ADHD lovechild of Project X and Looper, Project Almanac follows the timey-wimey misadventures of a group of teens led by Jonny Weston’s David, an engineering prodigy MIT hopeful, who stumbles onto some musty blueprints to a “temporal relocation” device that his late genius father had secretly been working on for DARPA before he died. What begins as merely an impossibly enticing engineering experiment soon turns into teen wish-fulfillment when David and his fellow outcast geeks Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), with the help of David’s “always recording” sister Christina (Virginia Gardener) and popular hot girl Jessie (Sofia Black D’Elia), actually manage to cobble together this time machine using parts of an Xbox 360, a Toyota Prius, an iPhone app (triple product placement!) and some shaky movie science.
There’s no “walking with dinosaurs” sense of wonder or “killing Hitler” moral conundrums here though, as the machine only allows jumps into the past no further than a few weeks thanks to its huge energy requirements (One can’t help but feel that the film’s small budget may have had something to do with that narrative restriction as well). No, these teens put the device to more practical Gen-Y benefit: getting revenge on bullies, solving all their money problems with the right lottery numbers (which isn’t as easy as it seems, as the gang discovers to hilarious effect), and of course, having the most incredible parties thanks to knowing exactly where to be and what to do (Who needs to change the world, when you can get to rock backstage with Imagine Dragons at Lollapalooza?). This life of never-ending blissful do-overs is thrown into disarray though when David changes the past to get his dream girl, setting off a spiraling series of ever worsening events in the present that spells fatal disaster for several innocent lives.
It’s this final bit that serves as the film’s only real dramatic impetus and source of tension, as David sinks further down the temporal rabbit hole constantly trying to fix one past mistake only to find he’s created more problems in the present. It’s admittedly thrilling to see how it all plays out, even if the surprises in the script from Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman are few and far between. They borrow plot elements liberally from other classic time travel movies, but are insightful enough to at least have their pop culture savvy cast actually give nods back to those very same movies. These throwbacks don’t help to hide the fact though that the film often shatters its own loopy time travel rules with abandon.
Where the script also lets proceedings down is in its lack of vision. Without fail, when events look primed for some grand dramatic revelation or paradigm shifting plot twist, Project Almanac will invariably take the easy way out. Boasting a thematic and narrative depth so lacking as to be two-dimensional, it simply refuses to challenge the humdrum norm, especially in its rote ending.
What you may find challenging though is the found footage aspect. It’s bad enough that the film falls prey to the same problem plaguing virtually all found footage films – having the script jump through convoluted narrative gymnastics to justify there always being a camera around – but in retrospect it becomes abruptly clear that there’s nothing in the plot that actually warrants the sometimes maligned gimmick. Shooting this conventionally would have required virtually no change to the plot. Adding insult to injury, first time director Dean Israelite often fills his images with annoying visual tics and jittery editing to try to replicate the deteriorating condition of the found footage, but all this serves is to disrupt what little dramatic tension the film builds up.
A saving grace of the movie is that despite the overall time-travelled-here-done-that-last-week feel of the affair, there is often a sense of effervescent fun to the flick. Most of that is due to an engaging young cast who are able to capably pull off both the geek-tastic pseudo-science as well as capturing that authentic teen spirit. Director Dean Israelite often taps into that youthful vigor, helping to cover some of the film’s cracks. He also shows a great eye for using effects sparingly (a necessity of the budget constraints) but still imbuing the act of time travel with a violent physicality. But alas, its not enough to overcome the film’s bigger problems. This is a pity though, as while Project Almanac is a perfectly watchable diversion now, there is a much better movie in here somewhere that could have done for time travel what Chronicle did for teenage superhero romps, had certain things just been done differently. Anybody have a real time travel machine available to go back and do it all over again?
Last Updated: February 20, 2015