Thank goodness for undiscovered basement labs and dusty video cameras. Otherwise Project Almanac’s generally likeable cast would have to be content with lousy grades and weak love lives.
Initially, it appears this frenetically filmed teen time-travel drama could be a better-than-average adventure. But bizarre camerawork and that laziest of all plot devices, the stash of found footage, soon slots it in the “unrealized potential” category.
Socially awkward high school science whiz David Raskin (Jonny Weston from surf drama Chasing Mavericks), desperate for a shot at an MIT scholarship, finds a freaky image from his seventh birthday party on his dead father’s video camera, stashed in the attic since his death 10 years earlier.
Convinced it proves his dad had built a time machine, David sets out to replicate the experiment using his father’s remarkably well-equipped basement lab, which comes complete with time machine-building instructions. He’s aided by fellow outcast high school pals Adam (The Secret Life of the American Teenager’s Allen Evangelista) and mouthy Quinn (Sam Lerner, channeling early Miles Teller).
David’s giggly younger sis Christina (Ginny Gardner) is entrusted with operating the camera to document the process — and not much else — which is standard in this movie, where boys run the action and girls are for ignoring, ogling or kissing, if they’re lucky.
The escalating experiments come complete with levitating tools and exploding power sources that somehow fail to bring cops or suburban neighbours running. But hooking the machine up to the car battery belonging to school siren and David’s secret crush Jessie (Gossip Girl’s Sofia Black-D’Elia) creates a new set of sparks.
They skip the testing phase and get right into time travel, with David making them pledge they won’t time “jump” solo, a rule we know he’s destined to break as soon as he says it.
They make jumps back for all the reasons any teen would, including classroom do-overs, Lollapalooza and revenge — all carefully video recorded with various devices. Yet when writers Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan come to the consequences part of the story, Project Almanac misses its potential to go deeper and darker.
There are vague, unpursued hints of what really happened to David’s dad. What could have been a poignant onscreen reunion is quickly dealt with and discarded.
Produced by Michael Bay and held for a year before being released, Project Almanac’s chief annoyance is the way it was filmed, using jerky shaky-cam, jump cuts and handheld shots where extras wander in and out of the frame in front of actors. It’s a ploy to evoke realism that annoys and distracts from the action rather than enhancing it.
Occasionally smart dialogue — a character asks “when are we?” after a jumping marathon — hints at what Project Almanac could have brought to the multiplex. But we have to go Back to the Future for that kind of time-travel staying power.