Project Almanac is a modern-day nod to the time travel sub-genre, but does it add anything new to the canon?
The film centres on a slightly awkward high school student, David Raskin (Jonny Weston), making a video application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his tech-wizard friends at hand, he demonstrates his own invention; a flying drone that can be remotely manipulated with hand gestures via motion sensing nodes.
There’s friendly back and forth of banter throughout, but a moment of tension cuts short the laughter, as he loses control of his creation and it comes crashing down from the sky, landing in the midst of the boys, who duck frantically for cover.
This works out to be an appropriate foreshadowing of what’s to come, as David discovers secret blueprints for a time machine that his deceased father left behind. This too will ultimately come crashing down around them, but in a much bigger and scarier way.
Time travelling etiquette
At least, that’s the intended premise. The film makes efforts at exploring the ethics that time travel would bring into question. David and his friends use the device for personal gain, on the condition that they do everything together and that “nobody jumps alone”. David begins doing more and more of exactly this in order to correct the ripple effects of his own decisions.
What separates Project Almanac is its tone and presentation of the whole package, even if it is inconsistent between acts. The initial attempts at building the time machine capture both the excitement and fear of a new discovery, almost reminiscent of watching Mark Zuckerberg realise the potential of his own creation in The Social Network.
The dialogue between the geeky group of friends feels natural and free-flowing. The time machine itself is intimidating in its early prototype phase, where its capacities are largely unknown. The excitement is palpable when they succeed in sending a toy car into the past, only to find it melded into the wall of the basement upon its exit from the time vortex.
What follows after this initial excitement is a pretty standard representation of what any American teenager would use a time machine for, like fixing a lottery win, getting backstage at a music festival and trying to woo the lead character’s dream girl, who by this point is along for the time travelling ride. It borders on becoming cliché at this point, but thankfully treats these worn tropes of time travel with a degree of lightness.
David’s buddy Quinn (Sam Lerner) provides much of the comic relief, going from unknown high school nerd to something of a local celebrity in the eyes of his peers. He’s got that irreverent, dot-com millionaire kind of charm and it makes for some fun scenes watching his sense of entitlement grow to silly proportions.
Whilst the second act provides much of the humour, it has one significant flaw. With MTV Films at the helm on Project Almanac, there is no shortage of contemporary music, with indie rock from the likes of Imagine Dragons featuring at almost every opportunity (even making a brief on-stage cameo). This would be fine if it were more subtle, but there are some moments where the film begins to look like just another MTV music video.
To the DeLorean!
By the time the final act arrives and David faces the repercussions of his choices – setting out to make everything right – the relationships between the characters themselves are more interesting than the flights of time travelling fancy, which is testament to the actors rather than the script. This movie fares best at creating a sense of camaraderie between a group of friends trying to hold a shared secret life together.
The film is shot in the found-footage style, with David’s sister filling in as camerawoman for the most part. She is pretty much relegated to a voice floating somewhere off-screen and the angles get quite inconsistent once David goes off on his own. The film also starts out looking wonderfully low-fi in its visual presentation, before those unnecessary ‘MTV moments’ begin to gloss things up.
Project Almanac is most entertaining when it drops its pretences. Its characters are more believable than the script seems to want them to be. The American high school setting feels clichéd, but the cast bring warmth and humour to it. The self-aware references to Back to the Future, The Terminator and other time travel classics aren’t subtle, but they serve to keep things relatively tongue-in-cheek.
Whilst this film may never sit alongside the source material that inspired it, Project Almanac has a character all its own, even if it doesn’t have the confidence to remain true to itself from start to finish.
Project Almanac is out now in UK cinemas.