Seventeen-year-old science genius David Raskin (Jonny Weston) wants more than anything to get into MIT, and makes elaborate pitch videos showing off his inventions in order to court the university’s attention. The gambit works, to a point: a few weeks later, he receives a letter saying he has a place, but hasn’t secured the $40,000 a year scholarship he needs to be able to take up the offer.
Believing he has to show off another cool invention to get the scholarship, David begins hunting around in the attic and basement of his parents’ house for inspiration. David’s father, it turns out, was a scientist himself before his untimely death around David’s seventh birthday. Among his father’s old stuff, David finds the plans for something called Project Almanac – a top-secret time travel device his dad decided to hide before he met his maker.
David and his colourful band of friends – goofy slacker Quinn (Sam Lerner), love interest Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), fellow science genius Adam (Allen Evangelista) and sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) – decide to build the time travel device laid out in those plans. Before long, their fiddling with recent history begins to have unforeseen and dangerous effects on those around them.
Directed by Dean Israelite, Project Almanac appears to use Josh Trank’s 2012 sleeper hit Chronicle as its template, from the high school teen antics to the use of found footage. This time, it’s David’s sister Chris who unaccountably films everything, including conversations occurring so far away that it’s difficult to figure out how she could be picking up what anybody’s saying.
By now, the trappings of the found footage genre are as familiar as any in cinema, from the occasional excited questions like, “Are you seeing this?” or “Please tell me you got that” to the occasionally irksome glitch effects and date stamps. Project Almanac fails to find the same kind of interesting ideas Trank explored in Chronicle, where the camera whipped and whirled around on the telekinetic whim of its protagonists. Here, it feels like a contrivance rather than a core part of the narrative.
And it has to be said that Project Almanac has an awful lot of contrivances in its plot. There’s something fun and breezy about the notion of a bunch of teenagers building a time machine from bits of an old Xbox 360 and the power cells from a Toyota Prius – they even find a way to control it via Android app – and the film’s first half an hour or so unfolds like a combination of The Famous Five, The Goonies and The Philadelphia Experiment. But after a while, questions begin to surface that are too quickly brushed off by the teens’ youthful banter.
“We only have enough power to go back three weeks into the past because… I’ll tell you later,” David blurts to one of his friends.
You don’t necessarily expect Primer levels of scientific believability in a teen time travel movie, but unlike a classic film like Back To The Future, Project Almanac fails to sketch in the rules of its sci-fi plot in a way that at least feels believable in the moment. In Back To The Future, we understood within a scene or two that tinkering with history comes at a cost, and a single image – that of faces vanishing from an old photograph – is powerful enough to lay out the stakes without getting too bogged down in logical details.
In Project Almanac, the pitfalls are never properly made clear. It’s stated early on that bumping into your past self can cause a potentially disastrous paradox, yet there are plenty of instances where the characters go back to a moment where they could quite conceivably meet themselves and don’t even question the dangers of it.
It’s only after a considerable amount of leaping back a few days into the past and pulling off a series of self-serving tricks and pranks – entering the lottery, getting even with bullies and the like – that Project Almanac begins to darken slightly, and this is after an over-long and largely extraneous sequence at a Lollapalooza music festival.
Even here, when the ripple effect of time travel begins to tell on David, the plot never quite gets going; numerous questions are left either obscure or unanswered, which might point towards some last-minute retooling at the editing stage.
On the positive side, Project Almanac’s quintet of plucky young actors have a real chemistry, and the film’s at its strongest when they’re just messing around with their temporal relocation device (the film’s term). Although by no means a failure, Project Almanac isn’t exactly a triumph in time travel movie terms, either.
Project Almanac is out on now in UK cinemas.
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