*The AV Club
Time travel might very well be the most difficult subgenre of science fiction to pull off.
The contorted and overlapped narrative structure that is central to most time-travel movies can be brilliant when done well and utterly ruinous when done poorly. Project Almanac (2015) splits the middle, creating a decently coherent timeline that is limited more by the ambition of the project than by the ability of the writers.
The film centers around David, a high school engineering whiz, and his fellow nerds. After being accepted into MIT, but not getting the necessary scholarship to pay for it, David and his sister stumble upon a video camera whilst looking for ideas for a new project with which to earn a scholarship. The two proceed to find a video of David’s seventh birthday, in which they spot a fully-grown David in the background.
Troubled by their discovery, the two enlist David’s nerd friends and rifle through their late father’s workshop. They come to find that their father was an engineer in a top-secret program to create time-travel, and that the blueprints were hidden under the floor of the workshop. Having seen himself in a ten-year-old home video, David knows that he and his friends must attempt to build that time machine themselves.
Project Almanac is shot in the style of a found-footage film, the premise being that these students decided to record all of their work in order to document what they feel to be the most important moment of their lives. However, this does not explain why literally every moment of the film was shot in such a way, and the style of a home-recording is compromised multiple times for the sake of plot expediency. While the stylistic choice makes sense for the film, Project Almanac would be much better off without it, or with a combination of found-footage and regular cinematography.
The characters of the film are convincing, but their identities as high school students limit the scope of the film. While the process of creating the machine is entertaining and suspenseful, their use of the machine is quite juvenile and frustrating. One of the most critical scenes of the film involves the kids going back in time to a music festival, simply because they wanted to. The frivolity of their adventures with time-travel is not unreasonable due to the characters themselves, but it does create a real limit to the potential of the film.
The plot is heavily dependent on the consequences of the characters’ time-travel, as is expected. While their uses for the machine are memorable at best and petty at worst, the consequences of their actions are severe, adding a grave seriousness to the film that makes up for the bland teenage daydreams of the second act. Once one of the characters breaks the crew’s rule of “never jump alone,” the problems begin to spiral out of control, necessitating desperate action.
A key issue with the characters is that their words and actions are inconsistent. All of the characters agree that the machine is a major responsibility and a source of great danger, but they proceed to treat it like a toy, and their shock when things begin to fall apart is therefore unwarranted. Had the characters been careful or deliberate in their use of the machine, the consequences of their travels would carry much more weight from a narrative perspective.
For a time-travel movie, Project Almanac succeeds in telling a story without ruining it with inconsistencies and incongruities. Unfortunately, the story being told is neither unique nor engrossing, mostly due to the low ambition present in the film. Project Almanac is a good time-travel movie for teenagers to whom the plot might interest more significantly, but to other audiences, Project Almanac is a huge “what if?”
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 6/10