If the makers of the new teen time-machine flick Project Almanac could jump back in their fictional device and release the film sometime in the mid-2000s — before Cloverfield pushed the found-footage format from indie-horror gold mine to tiresome multiplex staple, before the latest wave of big-screen time-travel upped the ante on imagination — Dean Israelite‘s film might be quite welcome. As it is, the film in which youngsters make a device that lets them leap back days or weeks in time to make high school a less punishing experience begins as a marginally fun diversion before proving to have nearly no interest in the possibilities of its premise. Business should be underwhelming but acceptable for this Michael Bay-produced time-killer, but it’s a little poison in the well for the next outing in the genre.
Jonny Weston plays David Raskin, a very bright teen whose scientist dad died when he was 7. Unbeknown to the family, Dad was close to perfecting a machine for DARPA that has been hidden in the basement all these years. When David and his sister find a puzzling home video in the attic (“Hey, we have a video camera? We should film everything!”), he soon guesses the nature of the invention and starts tinkering with it along with his tech-savvy pals.
They get the thing working around the point at which the school’s resident hot girl, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), finds out and insists on joining the fun. (Know what would be more mind-blowing than time travel? Having a love interest in a studio-made teen movie who wasn’t practically wearing a T-shirt saying “hot girl” and who contributed something to the action.) The friends agree to two rules: They’ll only time-travel together, and they won’t try going back farther than a few weeks — as it would require too much electricity and would force the screenwriters to engage with history instead of classroom hijinks.
In addition to pulling tricks on those who have bullied them, the kids help their friend Quinn (Sam Lerner) pass a Chemistry test in an over-and-over sequence that is sour instead of funny, comparing poorly not only to Groundhog Day but to its recent copycat, Premature. They use their gizmo to win the lottery, of course, and then to go to Lollapalooza, where they make very public spectacles of themselves, have the time of their lives and almost enjoy some romantic fantasies.
Project Almanac ignores the fact that the kids get themselves all over Instagram at the music fest, presumably in ways that would blow the whistle on these time-travel excursions. (The movie ignores a lot.) But the story does use this day as the springboard for its most promising subplot as David breaks his own rules in an attempt to make his life not just awesome but perfect.
Briefly, the movie becomes interested in the consequences of playing God, building some tension as David tries frantically to fix the things he broke while mending other things in the past. Here, Weston’s likability serves the film well; after rooted for him, we’ve participated in his own bad judgment and are invested in his remedies. The script, credited to Andrew Deutschman and Jason Harry Pagan, will follow this snowballing action to a plausible and almost touching conclusion only to completely contradict itself in its final scene.
But along the way, Almanac is forced to cheat so much with its ostensibly self-shot material that one has to ask why the format was chosen. Not only is it hackneyed and boring by the end, there’s no point at which a POV scene can be expected to be more exciting than a conventional one. The tale’s coda offers the single instance in which the video footage serves the plot, but even this development doesn’t require the film itself to be seen through this clumsy lens.
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, MTV Films, Insurge Pictures, Platinum Dunes
Cast: Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner
Director: Dean Israelite
Screenwriters: Andrew Deutschman, Jason Harry Pagan
Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Executive producers: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Vicki Dee Rock
Director of photography: Matthew Lloyd
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Costume designer: Mary Jane Fort
Editors: Julian Clarke, Martin Bernfeld
Casting director: Denise Chamian
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes