By Kyle G. King. DISCLAIMER: Time travel is always an awful idea! Do not attempt at home. In the off chance that anyone reading this comes upon a mysterious device that allows them to transcend, traverse, or otherwise manipulate time, we here at DoomRocket strongly urge you to destroy this device immediately. You will never be better off than you were before. Countless movies, books, comics, and television shows all prove that, without a doubt, time travel is a vile temptress and a classic evil genie trope that will only ever give you what you want only to take away something far more vital. (And you can’t just “go back and kill Hitler,” you fools.)
It would be an exhausting and otherwise ironic waste of time to grumble over the long list of paradoxes that movies dealing with time travel inevitably present. Single timelines, multi-verses, and string theory can quickly muddle the classic narrative structure (I am not a professional physicist, I merely aim to buy a ticket and suspend belief), yet one thing the exhausted genre undeniably cries for is a dynamic outlook. With a little help from MTV films and the lens flares that come with Michael Bay’s producer credit, Dean Israelite makes the bold decision of mixing found-footage cinematography with a high school-aged cast to present his feature directorial debut, Project Almanac.
Seventeen year-olds with time machines aren’t likely to change the world on a grand scale; they’re far more likely to play to their own self-serving interests (mostly concerning popularity and making money). Brainy senior David Raskin (Jonny Weston) ends up doing exactly that after exploring his father’s workshop in search of ideas for a MIT scholarship. What he discovers is the hardware and blueprints for a machine labeled “temporal dislocation” (otherwise known as time travel). As he lends his curiosity and inspiration along to his two friends Quinn and Adam, his sister Christina, and the apple of his high school eye, Jessie (Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, and Virginia Gardner, Sofia Black-D’Elia respectively), they all work side-by-side in putting together this mysterious machine to see just what it’s capable of.
Time traveling teens with handheld cameras is an ingenious and relatively uncharted territory (Back to the Future was 30 years ago and Michael J. Fox was hardly believable as a teenager), but while Project Almanac at first offers a fresh voice for itself, it quickly turns to the same disarray of angsty drama that has dominated teen movies for forever. Coupled with an attempt at innovation, Israelite’s aim to break new ground (found footage cinematography) is respectable, but it’s still not enough to shake the feeling that the script may have needed another once over before shooting began. (Though that doesn’t affect its ability to create engaging sequences of action, sci-fi, and pubescent romance.) A winsome young cast of relative newcomers help move the story along somewhat organically; it’s never difficult to relate to any of them or their special breed of friendship.
Similar to the problems that face most “actual” time travelers, what the movie suffers from most is a lack of constants amid the chaos created from jumping back and forth in time. Jonny Weston sells the emotional highs and lows of his character’s various conflicts but, bless his heart, he’s just too good looking to effectively sell as pitiful. Once the climax arrives, David’s misguided decisions that hinge on his selfish (and slightly sexist) agenda only register as unfathomable character depth for the audience. Weston has the chops to sell you, but the film doesn’t give him an opportunity to execute it properly.
What keeps you engaged throughout is witty dialogue, natural acting, and plenty of mystery. A “generation selfie” moviegoer will likely engage with the soundtrack of Lollapalooza bands and pop culture references (a perfect synergy typical of a MTV Films and Bay’s Platinum Dunes production), yet you can only reheat the same devices so many times. Project Almanac doesn’t just reference other time hopping films, it borrows many of the same ideas and clumsily repackages them. (It’s another stroke of irony that a film dealing with the manipulation of time can suffer its own inherent timing and pacing issues.) For a science fiction film, it offers little support to help us swallow the concepts of time travel.
To be fair, Project Almanac involves itself with the more brutal of film genres: time travel, found footage, and teen comedies all have some of the harshest critics around. And while it does provide plenty to be appreciated as an entertaining popcorn experience, it lacks originality and fails to lend surprising storytelling innovations to any of the several genres in which it resides. With a little more appreciation for its characters and a lot less time spent on pretty imagery played over an Imagine Dragons song, Project Almanac could’ve swung itself towards the trajectory of the Saturn awards. But as it stands, its fate is irreparably cast towards April’s MTV Movie Awards, and the likely prospect of snagging at least one Golden Popcorn. That’s destiny.