If you could travel back in time via a Delorean, phone booth, hot tub or some other nifty gadget, what would you do? Making the world a better place, rewriting dark chapters in history and solving global problems are great responses, but they’re also the replies people think they should give. Be honest: if you thought no one was watching or judging you, what would you really do?
Many films about temporal trickery actually answer this question accurately, understanding that we’re all just pursuing our own happiness. That excellent adventure Bill and Ted took was a by-product of trying not to fail their history class, after all. The slackers wanted to hang out, chase girls and dream of rock 'n' roll stardom — without worrying about Ted being sent to a military academy.
Project Almanac might start with science wiz David (Jonny Weston) attempting to impress his way into a college scholarship, but that doesn’t last. After building a time machine from a blueprint found in his basement, David, his friends (Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista) and younger sister (Virginia Gardner) chase fun, success, popularity, money, revenge and romance. Sure, David would like to reunite with his father, who passed away a decade ago and shares links to his new toy, but he’s more interested in ensuring his schoolyard crush, Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), falls in love with him.
So far, so standard, including the butterfly-effect-style realisation that actions in the past have consequences in the present, and that selfish deeds always have repercussions. Also standard is the approach chosen, and not just in affectionate name-checking of — and offering homages to — all the other time travel films you know and love. Sci-fi meets party movie wasn’t enough in the familiar stakes, so Project Almanac throws found footage into the mix as well. Think Chronicle crossed with Project X, without the surprise of the former and with the excess of the latter.
It’s a gimmick plastered over a gimmick, seemingly justified because everyone everywhere apparently films everything these days — or so the movies tell us. For the first-time filmmaking team, it’s an excuse to cover up obvious plot points and generic teen tropes with a frenetic, frenzied style. Sometimes it works, the handheld, hurried camerawork matching the energy of the characters, copying their largely carefree point of view, showcasing the likeable cast and allowing the feature to rush through numerous fun situations such as winning the lottery and going to Lollapalooza. There’s a hollowness that lingers in the selfie-esque imagery, though, like putting on a fake smile and pretending that you’re enjoying yourself.
Michael Bay’s name has featured heavily in Project Almanac’s marketing, not because of any giant, intergalactic, transforming robots or a semi-clad Megan Fox, but because of his involvement as a producer. Perhaps it is fitting that his brand of always shiny, sometimes entertaining emptiness is being used to draw people in. Like the believable motivations of the teens within the film in jumping into the past to seek pleasure and act in self-interest, that’s certainly honest.