I'm a sucker for good time-travel stories, in films and in books. Something about temporal paradoxes makes my brain itch in a totally pleasant way. So when a promising but ultimately underwhelming time-travel movie like Project Almanac comes along, I figure—eh, you take what you can get.
From the studio that brought you the found-footage horror franchise Paranormal Activity, Project Almanac migrates the shaky-cam approach into the teenage sci-fi adventure realm. When a gang of high school misfits discovers secret blueprints for a “temporal displacement device”—a time machine—they do what you might expect teenagers to do with such an opportunity. Comedy and drama ensue.
The kids take a DIY approach to building the time machine, stealing hydrogen from the high-school chem lab and solving the battery problem by hotwiring a neighborhood Prius. These early scenes are clever and funny—Almanac has a welcome sense of humor about itself. Director Dean Israelite references classics of the time-travel canon with playful visual nods: Back to the Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and the more recent (and underrated) Looper.
Our heroes are led by MIT applicant David Raskin, played by Jonny Weston in a performance that’s sure to win him better roles. Weston is a real find—he projects an intelligence that helps sell the character, but with the good looks and easy charm required to carry a movie coproduced by MTV Films. He's funny, too—all the performers are, and the script has surprisingly smart jokes throughout.
The movie’s second half disintegrates steadily, however, as teen romance trumps comedy and the crisscrossing timeline paradoxes stack and finally tumble. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off time-travel stories. Ask Isaac Asimov. It might be even harder in films, but it can be done. Check out Shane Carruth's excellent Primer for a no-budget how-to guide.
Almanac also handicaps itself with the found-footage conceit, a gimmick that’s truly exhausted. The movie gets some mileage out of the truism that today’s teenagers love to document themselves, but the logistics of several scenes spill into the totally implausible. In those critical moments when we should be asking, “Wait a minute—how did that happen?” we're instead wondering: “Wait a minute—how is there a camera-phone here?”
Project Almanac squanders a lot of its own potential. In an alternate timeline—with a few rewrites, say—it could have been a smart and lively update to the venerable time-machine story. Instead, it’s an OK sci-fi adventure, pitched at teens with disposable incomes, and dumped in January, where, unfortunately, it pretty much belongs.