Would you go back and change this in the past if you could? That is a question that has been posed in many time travel films. However, this moral conundrum holds an even more profound significance when in the hands of a teenager. Dean Israelite directs this latest entry in the found footage genre and he manages to blend some new elements to make Project Almanac a unique enough experience to merit a watch.
Giving teenagers the god-like power to time-travel is a fun concept in itself and it is not neglected in the movie. The teenage years are hard because every thing that happens, seems like the end of the world at that point in most people's lives. Getting to school late, failing a test, getting humiliated in front of a crush, or getting bullied can seem life-altering at the time. How many times have you heard a teen complain, "My life is over!" Giving that same teen, who is filled with emotions, hormones, and naivety, the ability to alter time would send ripples through the continuum that could be catastrophic. Israelite manages to explore some of the exhilaration and consequences of having that power at such a vulnerable time in a person's development.
The movie is about a brilliant high school senior, David Raskin, who on the verge of going to M.I.T. finds his deceased father's secret project, hidden in his laboratory. This project, named Almanac, is a time travel machine that was near completion. Along with the help of a couple of his intelligent friends, they use the found blueprints to complete the machine. Initially they use the device to fix their personal problems. However, a ripple effect results which causes different negative and unexpected consequences. The more their problems mount, the more they try to correct them until one of them takes it too far and breaks their agreed upon rules.
The performances in the movie, particularly by the lead Jonny Weston, are a strong part of the movie. If they ever reboot X-Men again and they are casting a young Michael Fassbender, Weston should already have the role locked up. He has the largest responsibility of the cast. He has to be believable as having an almost Tony Stark level of intelligence, while still being charming and affable enough to make it possible for someone to fall for him. His motivations change throughout the film, going from a sense of familial and scientific obligation to finish his father's work, to having much more self-serving motives that feels like a natural progression.
Another aspect of teenage development that Israelite explores, is the inherent lack of wisdom and recognition of cause and effect. That theme is well reflected in the movie with decisions that they make, and Raskin makes specifically, which begin to send ripples of change through their reality. However, the immediate gratification of winning the lottery, fixing their grades, and getting the girl that they like to fall for them, all eventually place the five main characters in unfamiliar realities. As the problems begin to mount the more the characters grow isolated. Most time travel films don't focus on the horror and isolation that the person who altered reality would experience, Israelite makes sure to pay attention to those details. In addition, Weston really sells the descent into madness to figure out the paradox that they have created.
For moments early on in the movie, Project Almanac almost feels like a modern 80's movie in the vein of Explorers. Where some kids create technology that is way over their heads and they go on a wacky adventure. All of the actors are believable and their reactions to the circumstances are fairly consistent. While the film doesn't focus on the supporting characters much, due to the film's short run time, they are not one-dimensional characters. For example, the party guy doesn't always want to have fun, especially when things get serious. It adds to the eventual tension when they are responding to the heightened circumstances in realistic ways.
At times Project Almanac shows promise and almost becomes an entertaining Twilight Zone style story. However the movie looses steam in the second act and although the third act cranks up the tension, it ultimately fails to completely nail its landing. It is a little frustrating because there are some really fun ideas and engaging characters that do make Project Almanac a fun film. However, if you like the time-travel genre, found footage, or movies with believable teenage characters, this is a movie that you should have a good time with. Project Almanac manages to be a surprisingly entertaining sci-fi romp worth checking out with your friends.