“Back, baby / Back in time / I wanna go back / When you were mine”
— Gillian Welch, “Wayside/Back in Time” (from Soul Journey, 2003)
There are very few original ideas at play in Project Almanac. The film’s flashiest gimmick, namely its use of the “found footage” handheld camera technique, doesn’t feel fresh, even though that style of filming is comparatively new in the world of modern cinema. The driving engine of the plot is a time machine, which, although nifty and compact in a way that time machines usually aren’t in movies, is still a time machine just like any other. The central philosophical question, if one could call it that, asked by the cast boils down to the timeless query: “What if you could get a second chance at the big moments in your life?”
Right off the bat, then, Project Almanac doesn’t set itself up to be much of anything beyond a run-of-the-mill time travel flick that, due to its herky-jerky camerawork, should come with a recommended dosage of Dramamine. In the end, the picture lives up to the meager promises it makes from the beginning: it poses all of the knotty problems that come with time travel (“If you change one thing, you change everything”), it has lots of cool displays of gadgets, and, because this is a film about hormonally-supercharged teenagers, a guy and a girl fall in love. (Or, at least, whatever love looks like at 17.) If during the first five minutes of Project Almanac one made a list of every known time travel trope, she could probably check most if not all of them off by the time its brisk 106 minutes are up.
The plot is largely unfussy, which is to Project Almanac‘s benefit, given that keeping up with the whiplash-inducing camerawork is a feat of its own. David Raskin (Jonny Weston, going from shy nerd to gutsy cool guy in an awkward zero to 60) is a high school senior with dreams of studying physics at MIT. The movie opens with him filming his application video, wherein he shows off a miniature hovercraft that he controls with sensors on his hands. In a less than subtle bit of foreshadowing, what starts off swimmingly in his video ends in disappointment, as the device flies up into the air out of the range of his control, only to come crashing down moments later.
Upon receiving his acceptance letter from MIT, though, David discovers that he has only been granted a $5,000 dollar scholarship, which is not enough for him to be able to afford to go to MIT. His mother (Amy Landecker) is a perpetual job applicant, and his dad, also a brainy science type, died in a car crash when he was seven. Dejected, David gives up hope on MIT.
But then, one fateful rifling through his dad’s old stuff leads him to a fascinating discovery. With his friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner, here basically so David has someone to bounce lines off of) and his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner, here to be the found footage’s camerawoman) in tow, he discovers that his dad was on to something. That thing? The titular Project Almanac. A couple of cans of hydrogen and a lot of damaged batteries later and David and friends, who are also joined by David’s love interest Jessie (Sofia Black D’Elia), are on their merry way into time travel.
In an unshocking move, the quintet does what any sensible teenagers would do when they can set back the clock: win the lottery, party, and party some more, with special focus on Lollapalooza, where the group gets to experience what so many people dream of doing with the power of time travel: seeing Imagine Dragons live in concert. (If any molly is dropped, no one is telling.)
Not long after this, of course, the externalities of time travel start to accrue. After going back to the future, they discover anomalies that didn’t happen in the initial present day. Planes crash. Star football players break limbs. Upon realizing that, hey, maybe screwing around with time is the cause of these phenomena, David starts to panic.
I would normally stop the plot description here so as not to let any spoilers slip, but the predictions that any reasonable person would make about the plot trajectory are probably true at this point. Project Almanac is a high tech but ultimately familiar story that has as many clichés as it does camera angle changes. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of an issue; one could easily chalk up Project Almanac as a bargain bin sci-fi flick, good for watching when nothing else is on or, if he was daring, for watching while high, given that being under the influence could be made quite fun when trying to keep up with “cinemaphotography by Cloverfield“.
However, there is some compelling material to be found in Project Almanac, and it’s a shame that it gets such short service. Even though, as the Guardian‘s Jordan Hoffman rightly notes, the two main female characters, Christina and Jesse, are relegated to roles where their function is to prop up their male co-stars, the David/Jesse storyline is where Project Almanac does find some traction.
Many time travel movies put high stakes on the reasons for undergoing time travel. In Looper, time travel is used for the purpose of assassination. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eponymous Terminator goes back in time to stave off a future human/machine war. Project Almanac, by contrast, uses it so that David has the chance to re-experience the one thing too many of us know all too well: a first love. Although at the start of the film Jesse is beautiful and utterly out of his league, once the warp and woof of time’s flexibility kicks in, suddenly the two seem an ideal pair. When things go wrong for David and Jesse at Lollapalooza (because, well, it’s Lollapalooza), David sees the time machine for what it can be: a chance to experience love’s tender passion for the first time.
Is this line of thought particularly original on Project Almanac‘s part? Not at all — and hardly surprising, given the way the rest of the movie’s events play out. But that doesn’t make David and Jesse’s plight any less poignant, even if only for a few moments. Even though in retrospect our high school loves and crushes seem like trifles in the grand scheme of things, for a teenager, they mean everything in the world. Romeo and Juliet got worked up over something, after all.
Yet while Flight of the Conchords once sung that “a brief taste of love is as sweet as any”, that doesn’t ring true in the case of Project Almanac. Much like the nonstop shifts in camera angles, any good idea here is fleeting. The only constants are the clichés. Not even the alternate beginnings and endings included amongst the Blu-ray release’s paltry extras can change that, for all the time-hopping Project Almanac does, it really only stays in one place.