If you discovered your dad’s time travel machine while in high school what would you use it for? That is the basic (and only) wrinkle to Platinum Dune’s variably familiar sci-fi daydream Project Almanac, a movie that mixes the found footage gimmick with well-worn “temporal relocation” beats. And when operating on that “win the girl” mentality, this harmless fantasy has its charms. But at a 106-minute run time, it’s surprising that this potential sci-fi coming of age yarn never plunges further down the time stream than what is essentially a 20-minute gag about getting to first base.
Perhaps it is too much to ask for a slab of found footage high school wish fulfillment to strive for more, but in a movie that name checks just about every popular time travel yarn of the last 30 years, it notably never draws attention to arguably the best—another teen comedy that used the high-tech magic wand to explore something genuinely profound about every adolescent’s life. Then again even comparing the story of Marty McFly growing to understand his parents with a group of kids whose greatest achievement is warping to Bonnaroo is like contrasting the valedictorian to the clique whose glory days ended at graduation. And rest assured, Project Almanac is definitely the golden god dropout of time travel narratives.
The days of future partying past begin when David Raskin (Jonny Weston) and his sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) find their dad’s old camdcorder from right before his untimely death. David, like his father, is a tech genius who has gotten into MIT, but unfortunately he cannot afford to go on even a partial scholarship. So, his sister decides the best thing to do is to film every second of his desperation for finding a new financial resource, because if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie. But as it so happens, their dad was ahead of the curve on the found footage thing and filmed everything too, including intimate conversations with his seven-year-old son (he clearly must have been a Blair Witch Project fan). Yet, things take a bizarre turn when David realizes that his 17-year-old self is on the tape from 10 years ago.
Eventually, David and his best friends Quinn and Adam (Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista) discover that their dad was secretly working for DARPA and coincidentally perfected the theory of time travel before his death. David puts it to good use by building his father’s time travel machine, which can only return to the past by escalating time distances of three weeks, six months, and finally 10 years. This literal time constraint also cleverly avoids worrying about any budgetary ones—like traveling far enough back to become a period piece.
Thus director Dean Israelite and writers Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan are allowed to only explore their characters’ intimate complexities and motivations, which can be summed as winning the lottery, humiliating the mean girls without impunity, and allowing David to finally bed his school crush Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia).
Despite being an adventure that is needlessly told via found footage—an affectation that will date David’s exploits more than any time destination—Israelite and company relatively overcome the visual straight jacket. While there is hardly a justifiable explanation for our heroes to turn their daily lives into goofy montages in the lab, ultimately the surface level sheen of found footage is supplanted by the far stronger one of high school escapism. None of the Project Almanac cast could be mistaken for a John Hughes ensemble, but they can still pass the grade of selling awe and excitement about the giddy joy of mastering time travel. And during the film’s early sequences of their initial experiments, it borders on infectious. In particular, their use of time travel to game the lottery creates a great punch line when their own human error costs them the difference between $1.8 million and $180 million.
Unfortunately, despite convincingly suggesting that Weston’s lead is MIT bound, the promise of a narrative as clever as its hero fades away when he falls for the surface level gloss of well, a Michael Bay movie (the executive producer). That means plenty of objectifying of the women and self-congratulation amongst the heroes for using time travel to either throw the best parties in high school, or to skip out on their peers altogether so they can go backstage with Vampire Weekend.
Indeed, their insistence that they “jump together” is the driving force of the conflict. When David starts making his own private temporal travails, there is some lip-service paid to butterfly effects and third act Lovecraftian caution, but it’s otherwise as if he decided to ditch his friends and bro out alone, burning the flux capacitor on both ends. This isn’t about correcting past mistakes: this is the story of a group of friends playing God so that they have the perfect high school experience, as prescribed for them by the movies (or at least reality television).
By attempting to add some admonishing acumen in the final 15 minutes of a picture that previously was most concerned with studying the quantum physics of a two-piece going down a water slide, the effect is not unlike Rick Perry starting to wear glasses.
Project Almanac has some cheap thrills that will likely distract its target audience for a weekend, but this is one time travel experiment that won’t even jump far enough into the future to still be relevant during Monday morning’s first period. Perhaps initially entertained by this romp, audiences will find themselves in a repetitive time loop of self-destruction long before the characters realize it.