The word ‘almanac’ isn’t in the vocabulary I use. Perhaps ‘annual’, but I’d assume a collection of lists isn’t what the director is alluding to. Instead, he’s referring to the infamous Grays Sports Almanac at the centre of Back to the Future Part II. Marty’s plan to outwit the doc and make money using the sports results backfires spectacularly as Old Biff gets his copy and changes the future forever. In fact, a future set in the year 2015. How perfect that, now we’re in 2015, a film using the term appears. What would happen if Marty, and his friends, got hold of the almanac today? Travelling through time to bunk school, win the lottery and get the girl? Director Dean Israelite aims to answer this question in Project Almanac.
Marketed as “Chronicle meets Primer”, Project Almanac is a found-footage teen flick, whereby our college-applying scientists find a clock-rewinding contraption in the basement. David (Jonny Weston) has been accepted into MIT but can’t afford the fees. His Mum (Amy Landecker), on the lookout for a job herself, decides to sell the house to pay for him. His father (Gary Weeks), a scientist, passed away a decade before. In his old lab beneath the house, David - alongside his sister (Virginia Gardner) and friends (Sofia Black-D'Elia, Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) - finds the ‘Project Almanac’ plan for a time-machine. Potentially the answer to all his problems, he and his friends embark on a committed effort to ensure the mechanics work and, to their shock (though not to ours), a broken X-Box, a few small-canisters of hydrogen and a car battery does indeed create a time-machine.
Older-folk will recall a similar movie from 2004 in the Ashton Kutcher-starring The Butterfly Effect. Considerably darker in comparison, The Butterfly Effect managed to ram home the “there are always consequences” dilemma as seen here in the mould of a teen-romance plot. Project Almanac is amusing in its carefree tone, as the core group are upbeat nerds who are likeable through their complete ignorance of the school clichés. They work hard and help each other; they enjoy creativity and construction; they know about parties but have their own interests to pursue. These might seem like minor plus-points, but their decisions to clock-hop to gain one-up on a bully and support their educational dreams are a long way from celebrity-status and winning The X-Factor.
Not that Project Almanac ignores these enviable pursuits completely. Within the group, one kid is proud of “being someone” in the school following their clock-reversing exploits, while their winning-the-lottery gag is a nice touch. But this isn’t central to the story. The love of another, and being with someone who cares for you, is front and centre. Huddled in a circle, the scientific-explosion throws the clan all over the shop, and we enjoy the ride. Teens will appreciate the Lollapallooza advertisement (something that staggered my own appreciation) that firmly locates the pop-picture in West-coast America - as kids must witness this context on MTV regularly. MTV Films partly financed the film too.
By referencing Time Cop and Terminator, they’re savvy in their pop-culture lexicon. All this recording, like all found-footage filmmaking, is justified by its handheld hand-holder, David’s sister Christine. It’s Christine who’s told off for her incessant documenting, and it’s Christine who’s glared at when reminded of ‘rules’ regarding Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the forced ‘setting the rules’ segment and ‘montage of time-travel’ escapades are tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these drawn-out chunks of countless other films. Having said that, the expected “look-what-we’ve-found!” and “how-do-we-make-this-work?” intro outstays its welcome. We know the invention will work, so can’t we leap there?
Produced by Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, it’s easy to dismiss this as flippant fodder for the young ‘uns to enjoy. But it’s not without its merits. There is fun to be had, and isn’t that the point? Take away the inevitable excuses for an extra buck in production (Product-placement, “inspired by the motion picture” soundtrack-selling) and you have a warm heart and cool extension to the time-travel genre. Could it be better? Of course. Would I go back in time and erase its existence? Absolutely not – it’s a keeper.