Project Almanac (2014)

Change the past, risk the future.

If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change? These are the questions being asked in the latest Michael Bay, Transformers (2007) produced, found-footage-style, time-travel picture, Project Almanac. Feature film debut for director Dean Israelite, Project Almanac tells the story of 17-year-old David Raskin (Jonny Weston), a high school senior and aspiring inventor, intelligent enough to be admitted into MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but is unable to afford its costly tuition fees. Upon learning his mother, Kathy Raskin (Amy Landecker), is planning to sell the family home to financially support her son with his education, David searches for an alternative solution with the aid of his friends, Adam Le (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn Goldberg (Sam Lerner), who usually assist David with his many inventions and experiments, and slightly younger sister, Christina (Virginia Gardner) normally given the task of videoing all of David’s projects; from conception, to trial, all the way till final completion. Rummaging through the belongings of his late father, Ben Raskin (Gary Weeks) — a brilliant inventor who died tragically in a car accident on David’s 7th birthday — in the hope of finding something he can use to land himself a scholarship, David ends up discovering an old camera with a video recording of his 7th birthday, in which he briefly spots his 17-year-old self in a reflection.

No time to waste!
No time to waste!

Meticulously scouring through the Raskin family basement, the teens stumble across the blueprints for a temporal relocation device, along with a partially built prototype of the displacement doohickey, which David’s father had ‘apparently’ been developing for the United States military right before his untimely death. Using all their available resources, the four teens attempt to build the contraption, a functional ‘time machine.’ After some trial and error, they successfully send a toy car back in time for one minute and, in due course, decide to use the machine on themselves. Now, with the ability to move back and forth through time, they address typical concerns of young adults; one of them cheats on a class presentation, another gets revenge on a school bully, they all decide to use their newfound ‘ability’ to win the lottery — and have a blast spending their winnings — and of course they party, going back three weeks to check out Lollapalooza — an annual music festival featuring popular music artists, from alternative rock, to heavy metal, punk and hip hop.

David eventually devises a plan to travel ten years in the past — all the way back to his 7th birthday — in an effort to save his father’s life, but first yearns to win the affection of his long-time crush, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia) who has stumbled onto his little project and willingly joins the crew. So basically, the teenagers are having the ‘time of their life,’ altering the past to make their futures brighter. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty. Since everyone’s lives develop from a series of decisions, both large and minor, as well as chance occurrences, changing even the smallest detail of the past can cause severe ripple effects. As the future crumbles apart with disastrous repercussions, and each of the teens begins to disappear little by little, David learns that to stop the destruction of the world around him, he must travel back to the past and make sure the group never invent, nor learn of, the time traveling device.

Today is better the second time around.
Today is better the second time around.

Although the premise of Project Almanac comes across as tired, done-to-death, and rather basic, the picture is, for the most part, surprisingly enjoyable, inadvertently heartfelt, and, at times, a lot more thrilling than it ought to be, despite its few faults and head scratching moments. While there’s a bit of a wait for the time travel elements to truly ramp up, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the meantime, seeing these teens build, experiment with, and ultimately succeed in constructing their time traveling doodad. The flick also does a decent job in allowing viewers to escape certain ‘illogical elements,’ in particular how a group of highschoolers — with a fairly limited budget mind you — could create a fully functioning time machine, much less create one when no one else on Earth seemingly could. The characters of David, and his buddy Adam, are initially established as being ‘geniuses’ from the get go; so, it’s not totally far fetched that these two could figure out how to complete the already crafted instructions and blueprints sitting in front of them. The actual time traveling special effects, both digital and practical, are also grounded in reality — unlike many other similarly themes pictures. The effects are not over-done, nor do they take away from the narrative focus, and are used simply as a means to push the story forward; in other words, this is not an effects-heavy picture.

However, despite some explanation which helps solidify the camera’s constant presence, Project Almanac, like so many before it, would have benefited greatly by simply being presented in typical Hollywood narrative style; though oddly enough, this flick falls somewhere in between. We see edits that make little sense for someone who’s supposed to be recording ‘random material,’ then hear music composition over montage scenes: it’s jarring listening to musical cues, playing over a film that’s posing as found camcorder footage. And while these production elements aren’t necessarily ‘bad,’ they’re just out-of-place and further emphasize the fact that Project Almanac should have shunned away from self-shot material all together; besides the film’s topsy-turvy narrative really does not lend itself to this gimmicky method of filmmaking either. On the topic of irritating found-footage, why, in a predominantly male cast, was a female character chosen to record events and carry the camera? What’s more, the prettiest female, David’s sister Christina? Instead of seeing this lovely girl up on screen, we get shaky glimpses of her hands, hair and feet, for the bulk of the pic. Disappointing.

Time travel ... it's hair-raising!
Time travel … it’s hair-raising!

The relatively unknown cast all deliver fairy naturalistic performances, and given that these actors ‘supposedly’ had only five days to learn their lines, all do a credible job in their respective roles. Jonny Weston, Taken 3 (2014), headlines the picture, and convincingly portrays David Raskin as a plausible science nerd, whereas the attractive Virginia Gardner comes off as somewhat ‘implausible’ as Christina Raskin, who is being picked on by her peers; in reality a female student with ‘beauty’ like Christina’s would generally fall into the popular crowd and not be subjected to bullying.

Originally titled Welcome to Yesterday, Project Almanac sustains its momentum and remains partially entertaining throughout — easily being able to please its intended demographic — even though there are numerous eye-roll-enduing moments as the feature nears its ‘disorderly’ final act. Imperfections aside, Project Almanac is well scripted and affably conceived, standing as a solid debut for first-time director Israelite, though a more classic/ standard filmmaking approach may have been more advantageous — working in the flick’s favor — as the found-footage sub-genre is slowly beginning to feel tedious and overdone.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Project Almanac is released through Paramount Pictures Australia