Project Almanac (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.
"Project Almanac" must have known it wasn't ready for release, considering it was once named "Welcome to Yesterday" and slated for a February 2014 release. Disabuse yourself of the notion that this "time-travel movie for teens" will be as smart and clever as "Primer," "Looper," or even "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (the former of which is mentioned and the latter glimpsed on a computer screen) and it will be passable as kid stuff. Aside from probably satisfying its demo audience, the film won't blaze any trails, and for a found-footage sci-fi thriller, "Project Almanac" has nothing on 2012's more-thrilling, more-emotionally potent "Chronicle." Like another found-footage pic with "Project" in the title—2012's "Project X"—this is a wish-fulfillment yarn that will mostly be seen as "cool" for teens.
Accepted into a physics fellowship at MIT, brainy Georgia high school senior David Raskin (Jonny Weston) realizes he won't have the necessary financial aid. In no time, his widowed mother (Amy Landecker) puts their house on the market. Then when David and snarky sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) find their late engineer father's old camcorder in the attic, David spots his 17-year-old self in the mirror at his seventh birthday party. This leads to Christina filming everything here on out and David bringing along geeky pals Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista). The four of them further investigate to understand the strange logic of the footage and snoop around the Raskin kids' father's basement workspace, only to find what looks like a time machine locked away in the floor. With the use of a car battery from David's dream girl Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), they all soon start testing out time travel, going back three weeks and harmlessly changing situations. It's not until David decides to make the jump alone that he causes a ripple effect to keep his relationship with Jessie.
Directed by first-timer Dean Israelite and scripted by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, "Project Almanac" seems like more of a wasted opportunity than a total wash. The setup is cool, as the trial-and-error experiment with David and his pals begins as all fun and games. It operates on teenage everyman logic, posing the question of What would you do with a time machine? To excuse the reason why David nixes the idea of going back and killing Hitler, the machine only allows them to go back three weeks at first. David imagines the possibilities, calling their creation a "second chance machine," so what do they do? They all make a pact to solely use it for personal gain: Quinn takes a couple of tries to ace a periodic table presentation for chemistry class; Christina stands up to her bitchy bully; they all cheat the lottery; and they buy tickets on eBay to attend the Lollapalooza music festival to see Imagine Dragons and Atlas Genius in concert. These kids' priorities are so off, forcing the more discerning viewer to roll his or her eyes, but the film hopes you won't notice. The characters are a likable bunch, at least before they become short-sighted in altering the little things that won't matter past high school and ignore the bigger problems that are of the life-or-death variety. When they realize their time-jumping has spiraled out of control and caused a tragedy, everyone but David wants to stop playing God, all because of a girl who liked him from the beginning anyway. Jonny Weston (2014's "Kelly & Cal") is more prom king than physics nerd as David, but he carries most of the film acceptably. Of the rest of the characters playing David's friends, Sofia Black-D'Elia is an appealing find, bringing the most empathy to Jessie.
As for the handheld-video conceit, "Project Almanac" is never beholden to any consistency in order to make such a format work. It can enhance the horror and sci-fi genre, grounding what is sometimes otherworldly or fantastical. Here, it does the story few favors, adding little to a time-travel adventure that might have been better if shot in a traditional way. We get the requisite "from now on, film everything" line, but it's a sloppy, inconsistent indication when slickly audible (and non-diegetic) alternative music plays over a montage and shots are cut together perfectly. Then again, the aesthetic choice is the least of the film's problems. After a decent first half, the rest of the film reaches for emotional weight with an initially sweet but pretty featureless teen romance. Even past that, the narrative paradoxes become so convoluted to the point of being confusing and forgettable with what is actually happening to the point of just not caring anymore. Not for the better, the MTV-produced "Project Almanac" seems to have been written by 17-year-olds.