Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Dean Isrealite. Written by Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschmann. Produced by Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Michael Bay. Photographed by Matthew J. Lloyd. Edited by Julian Clarke, Martin Bernfeld. Production designed by Maher Ahmad. Costumes designed by Mary Jane Fort. Starring Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista.
When the young heroes of Project Almanac receive the blueprints to a working time machine, they are ecstatic. They compose a mental checklist of things they’d like to accomplish, including walking with dinosaurs, killing Hitler, and acing last week’s Chemistry project. Well, only one out of three turns out to be possible, since this is a time machine that can reach only a few weeks into the past. And so we have a group of teenagers that would love to visit Woodstock, but instead have to make do with last month’s Imagine Dragons concert. What a disappointment.
And so, unfortunately, is Project Almanac, a found footage sci-fi thriller that once upon a time had a different title (Welcome to Yesterday), a different release date (last summer) and possibly a plot that made a lot more sense. Removed from last year’s schedule and now dumped at the end of January with little fanfare, Project Almanac, in its finished state, bears the hallmarks of last-minute reshoots and editorial tinkering. Many time-travel stories can’t hold up under scrutiny, but this one fails the test of its own logic, as it presents “rules” that can be casually broken, characters that are written inconsistently, and a plot that just doesn’t add up. We can accept that messing with the past can have unpredictable consequences; if a butterfly can affect the weather half a world away, think of what some silly teens could do. But positing chaos theory does not mean your movie can devolve into narrative chaos, which Project Almanac does (and the bumpy found footage aesthetic does not help).
That’s a shame, because Project Almanac gets an A for effort in trying to target a more subjective and nightmarish form of time travel story: more Twilight Zone than Back to the Future. The setup: our hero is David (Jonny Weston), a technological genius who is accepted to MIT but gets disastrously stiffed on scholarship and grant money. Looking for some financial security, he discovers a hidden panel in his father’s old basement workshop containing blueprints for a working time machine. David decides to build it and enlists the help of his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), and his sarcastic sister Christina (Virginia Gardner). She films everything, leading to the inevitable found footage-inspired question of why on Earth someone would record some of these things (except for our benefit, of course). She even captures on camera an after-hours raid on the high school science lab, a choice that seems questionable at best.
With Christina spending much of her time behind her camera, however, the movie senses a pretty girl shortage, and so it supplies another one in the form of the uber-popular Jesse (Sofia Black-D’Elia). She is inadvertently entangled in the group’s plans and soon graduates to willing participant, then later gravitates into David’s romantic orbit. It’s a cute spin on the idea of the high school girl who likes the guy with the coolest car, I suppose. The group uses their newfound abilities to ace finals, win the lottery, and spend a whole day at Lollapalooza, and then David starts abusing the machine it in order to perfect the trajectory of his relationship with Jesse, Groundhog Day-style.
Don’t even get me started on how these kids constantly avoid their past selves; wouldn’t trip after trip create a real traffic jam? Let’s just say that at some point Project Almanac quite definitively falls apart, specifically as David spirals into a reality nightmare and the world stops making sense…in a way that doesn’t make sense, if that makes sense. This leads to a frantic closing sequence that tries to make us feel something other than complete confusion and fails. This is probably the first found footage movie ever that could inspired a debate about whether, given the nature of the story, the footage in question should even exist at all. But the real issue isn’t the questions; it’s the lack of well-crafted characters and stakes to care about. This is a film that name-checks Back to the Future, Looper, Terminator and Timecop, and you know you’re in trouble when you wish you could watch any of those instead. Yes, even Timecop.