Project Almanac has more potential than it realizes but isn’t as clever as it thinks. I guess that makes it as much a stunted adolescent as its protagonists. Here’s a time travel movie that could explore the dependably interesting temporal implications of its sci-fi hook, but instead just proves teens definitely shouldn’t mess with the past unsupervised. At least these kids know about other time travel movies, so it helps them sort out the pitfalls, even if it doesn’t stop them from figuratively stomping on those butterflies and watching the ripple effects of selfish actions alter the future with cascading unintended consequences. This movie spends what feels like forever on building the time machine after a boy (Jonny Weston) finds his dead scientist dad’s old theoretical schematics hidden away in the basement. Then, the script by Andrew Stark and Jason Pagan borrows our memories of better time travel stories’ rules to fuel boring teenage wish fulfillment.
The boy, his science buddies (Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista), his sister (Virginia Gardner), and his crush (Sofia Black-D’Elia) end up wowed by early experiments and decide to jump back in time to get whatever they want. They set about charming hotties, buying a Maserati, going to Lollapalooza, winning the lottery, dumping soda on a bully, and passing chemistry class. They’re thinking small and petty, but they think they’re being careful, namedropping Looper, The Terminator, Timecop, and Groundhog Day to explain how best to avoid messing up the timeline. Too late. Of course it all goes wrong and they learn a hard lesson about the headaches inherent in temporal transportation. Worse still, they’ve gone out of their way to winkingly mention movies that make smarter use of it. How am I supposed to watch this clunker when it’s gotten me thinking about better movies?
This is all standard stuff unsuccessfully jazzed up with a found footage gimmick. It’s one of those paradoxical half-hearted entries in the subgenre, with sharp digital widescreen images supposedly shot by nonprofessionals on consumer products. Sure. The visuals are slick, but nauseatingly jostled in an attempt to look handheld. Director Dean Israelite, making his feature debut, mistakes “found footage” for “sloppy work.” It makes casual references to explaining away the omnipresence of camcorders in the plot, but doesn’t do anything clever with the conceit. Look at the way Paranormal Activitys and Cloverfield make an asset out of off-the-shelf features. Now look here at how swinging a shot around just makes everything look blurry. Add endless scenes of running or partying and there’s a lot of smeary chaos to sit through.
If there were much worth paying attention to in the jittery shots, they’d be easier to excuse. But the characters are bland types. There’s a handsome, nonthreatening gaggle of nerd bros doing all the work, and two girls hanging around to operate cameras, look pretty, and happily listen to endless mansplaining. These sadly familiar stock characters are stuck in a plot that assumes you already know the basics of time travel but doesn’t feel the need to do anything with them. The movie refrains from complicating its simple careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale with anything approaching imagination.
It’s threadbare, keeping big events like vehicle crashes and school basketball championships off screen and letting memories of other movies fill in connective tissue between timeline shifts. As jumps to the past changes present variables, the picture shrugs off details beyond those necessary to the immediate plot mechanics. The filmmaking muddles cause and effect, setup and payoff, the most important parts of any time travel movie. It makes for a frustrating experience. The implications of its last five minutes – part Frequency, part Primer, part Edge of Tomorrow – might’ve made it a film of some cult interest but for what you have to sit through to get there. It’s too little too late.