Project Almanac shows us what could happen when a group of high school friends build a time machine from blueprints found hidden in a basement. Produced under the MTV Films and Platinum Dunes banners, the film pretty delivers a hybrid of what you expect from both studios, teenage high jinks that ultimately take a horrific turn for the worse.
Time travel movies in general tend to ride a slippery slope for sci-fi fans. In the cases of the recent Looper and Edge of Tomorrow, they can be complicated mind benders that pull no punches with their own concepts on ‘how this shit works.’ Then sometimes traveling through time is handled as just a fun throw away concept utilizing a cartoonish ‘take it or leave it’ method of slipping in and out of the timeline (Bill & Ted, Hot Tub Time Machine). And there are also just flat out bad time travel movies period.
High school whiz kid David Raskin (Jonny Weston) finds himself in a tough spot when his dreams of attending MIT are shattered when he is denied a scholarship. His sympathetic mom (Amy Landecker) puts the family home up for sale to allow him to follow his dream, and in his late father’s footsteps in science. While he and his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) rummage through the attic to prepare to move, they find an old video camera which has a recording of his seventh birthday party, which was also the day his father died in a car accident. Upon viewing the tape they discover the impossible: present day David was somehow at the party ten years ago.
Along with his other tech minded friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), they discover plans for a time machine in David’s basement locked away with other scientific artifacts that belonged to his brilliant father. So at this point you have to let suspension of disbelief completely take over as they successfully obtain the necessary means to build a working time machine in secret.
Kids will be kids and their first few jumps into the past are played out for juvenile fun. They make a pact to always travel in a group as a means of safety as well as checks and balances. David and his chums frivolously use the time machine to solve typical teenage woes that shouldn’t cause major disturbances to the space time continuum: money problems, besting a bully, increasing one’s popularity, and of course getting the hot girl of your dreams. The initial romps play it for fun and keep Almanac‘s tone light and free enough for the characters to make reference to their own favorite time travel movies.
But following one particular jump back two months in time to spend 9 hours raging at Lolapalooza, the butterfly effect catches up with them with catastrophic results in the present and the film spirals into the tone the film of the same name. Interestingly enough most of the advertising focuses on the darker half, which is where the script requires you to think. As a time travel theory glutton, this is where the film picks up for me, seeing how they deal with paradoxes and how to undo their meddling ways with the timeline. What seems like a simple fix for one problem only ends up creating another change in continuity. Can things ever go back to exactly the way they were?
The darker the tone the film goes to, the more it invites the viewer to analyze the science, or science fiction, of it all and its where it will separate some genre fans from the MTV demo. You’re far more willing to overlook leaps of faith in storytelling when the movie and characters play it for harmless fun. But when the stakes are raised, it becomes open game for nitpicking plot points and whether screenwriters Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman have written a satisfying endgame to the paradoxes they set up.
Director Dean Israelite also takes the found footage approach with this. Once you think that shaky POV style of storytelling has died down, it will inevitably come back from its shallow grave. Project Almanac pushes the limits of how much a story can conceivably be shot by the characters in the film holding some kind of video device. The camera takes some tumbles and needs to be picked up off the ground at times, especially after transporting through time or through action sequences, but it certainly lacks the creativity of Josh Trank who broke the typical found footage mold in Chronicle.
Almanac plays off its own unique theory that events caught on video will not be changed to reflect any changes from the original timeline when the actual tape travels back through time. The recording caught on tape is as immune to the new events as the time traveler’s memory before things were altered. Other than that, the script makes no apology in sourcing what movie it takes its leads time travel cause and effects from.
Project Almanac by no means re-invents the wheel in regards to theories of time or injecting fuel back into the found footage genre, but it’s a harmless, enjoyable romp that won’t stress your brain. It takes its cues from all over the genre with hit or miss success, depending on how you like your time travel theories executed. The likable cast works on the MTV level for sure, but hardcore sci-fi fans will want something stronger. The film does address what may happen if we could have the power as teenagers to change the past, but how it ultimately cleans up the mistakes that come along with high school immaturity is another thing altogether.
Project Almanac hits theaters January 30th.
REVIEW RATING: ★★½ ★★★
Director: Dean Israelite
Starring: Jonny Weston, Sophia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evanelista, Virginia Gardner
Screenwriters: Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 106 minutes