Even though Project Almanac does not reinvent the found footage format, the movie still manages to tell a gripping (and stylish) time travel story.
When brainy high schooler David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is rejected for a prestigious scholarship that would have allowed him to attend MIT science program, David's widowed mother Kathy (Amy Landecker) decides to put the family home up for sale - to secure enough money for the top-tier college. While digging through old boxes in the attic in preparation for the sale, David and his younger sister, Christina (Virginia Gardner), discover a mysterious video camera packed among their deceased father's belongings. Inside the camera is an aged tape of David's seventh birthday party; however, upon close examination of the video David, along with friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), notice something unexplainable - an eighteen year-old David (with the same camera) standing in the background of the decade-old footage.
Following this bizarre revelation, the pals investigate David's basement for a potential answer - learning that David's father was a brilliant inventor who helped develop the world's first time machine, dubbed "Project Almanac". Driven by personal desires (money, popularity) and a thirst for discovery, the friends begin a painstaking process of rebuilding the machine. Yet, upon the device's completion, the young tech-heads, joined by David's new girlfriend Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), learn the cost of experimentation - specifically that even the smallest misadventure through time can have drastic consequences in the present.
Formerly titled Welcome to Yesterday, Project Almanac was brought to the big screen by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production house - with freshman feature director Dean Israelite sitting at the helm. Nevertheless, in spite of untested talent behind the camera and mostly unknown actors on screen, Project Almanac provides an entertaining time travel adventure with genuinely sharp humor, tight pacing, and quality performances from the main cast. For established fans of mind-bending timey whimey stories (e.g., BBC's Doctor Who or Shane Carruth's cult hit Primer) Project Almanac doesn't reinvent (or improve upon) the genre wheel. Specifically, in its effort to increase overall popcorn entertainment value, Project Almanac only has room for standard (and predictable) science fiction ideas.
The story centers on a number of time travel concepts that have been utilized in prior year hopping films; yet, Israelite presents each one with enough flair to differentiate his version - and make Project Almanac an overall enjoyable moviegoing experience. In the same way that Josh Trank found a fresh twist on the superhero genre in Chronicle, Israelite's blend of found-footage, time travel theory, quirky comedy, and nuanced character moments, ensures that most viewers will be too invested in the onscreen drama to scoff at any familiar plot beats. The film's recycled ideas still provide a poignant foundation for David's misadventures in time - and, most importantly, never violate established rules of this particular time travel tale.
In addition to a tight script, tried-and-true time mechanics, and stylish filmmaking, Project Almanac also benefits from a likable cast - young actors that capture both the wonder and horror of unchecked scientific discovery. Jonny Weston (Taken 3 and Insurgent) is tasked with a challenging part - as a likable nerd that is forced to make several incredibly difficult (and at times dark) decisions. Weston is a relative newcomer to the Hollywood spotlight, with a pretty thin filmography, but the young lead is instrumental in selling Project Almanac's most entertaining and impactful scenes.
That said, Weston does not carry the film alone - and Israelite has assembled a strong lineup of supporting actors. Where many High School-age found footage movies are packed with cliche stereotypes, Project Almanac surrounds Weston with quality performers in rounded, and downright relatable, roles. Lerner's Quinn teeters on teenage tropes from time to time, though the character (and the performance) manage to find enough variation to make Quinn one of the more entertaining additions to the story - especially as events begin to go south. Similarly, Evangelista is a solid counter-balance to Weston and Lerner - presenting Adam as a slightly less reckless adventurer and, often, the voice of reason in their group.
In a less successful effort, female characters like Christina and Jessie, would be reduced to one-note accomplices for more nuanced male leads but Gardner and Black-D'Elia, respectively, ensure that the girls of Project Almanac are just as dynamic and capable as their male counterparts. Certain aspects of the characters still borrow heavily from high school outlines but, by the end, there's no doubt that the ladies of Project Almanac are more than undercooked love interests, they both play pivotal roles in key plot decisions - as well as the film's larger philosophical (and scientific) quandaries.
That all said, moviegoers who already have reservations about the found-footage format will find that Israelite's film suffers from standard problems in the genre - choppy, first person perspective, suspension of disbelief (that the kids would actually keep filming in certain situations), and an overall limited cinematic toolset. Project Almanac is far from an egregious found footage cash grab, since the filmmakers actually manage to utilize the format to enhance certain sequences (along with the overall story); yet, the film isn't likely to win-over skeptics who still feel that found footage is (almost always) a cheap gimmick that hides otherwise inferior visual effects and narrative development.
Ultimately, viewers who are looking for a fun (and at times funny) sci-fi story, should find plenty to enjoy in Israelite's latest effort. Hardcore fans of thought-provoking time travel stories might be underwhelmed by the lack of fresh science fiction in Israelite's project but, to his credit, the director still explores some pretty heady ideas - especially in a film aimed at the casual (young adult) movie market. To that end, even though Project Almanac does not reinvent the found footage format, the movie still manages to tell a gripping (and stylish) time travel story.
Project Almanac runs 106 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual content. Now playing in theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Project Almanac episode of the SR Underground podcast.