It has been theorized that film is a reflective surface that mirrors the fears of the society and its times. Some lines are easier to draw than others– the post-war atomic panic films from the 50s and 60s, the rise of the anti-hero in the 70s to the post-9/11 grim-faced invasion films of the early aughts. Flicks that use time travel as a central conceit however seem to reside in the realm of evergreen human fears. Regardless of when they are made, the message is always the same– time travel is too dangerous to be meddled with by the likes of moral men and women. Unless you happen to be Bill Murray.
Dean Israelite’s debut film, the nap-enducingly titled “Project Almanac” does not feature any of the Murray brothers, and is very much concerned with the inevitably terrible consequences of traveling through time for gain and profit. The film portrays the exploits of David Raskin (Jonny Weston), high-school social decrepit and would-be future MIT student. He is a mechanical wunderkind, inventing devices in his spare time alongside his pair of blandly inoffensive dork pals. Meanwhile David’s sister, Christina (Virginia Gardener) relentlessly films them because… reasons?
Things take a turn for the sci-fi when David discovers archival footage of his present-day self attending his own seventh birthday party. It is not long before David and co have built a time machine and are defying quantum physics to ace science exams they have previously failed and exacting revenge on school bullies.
“Imagine the possibilities… it’s a second chance machine,” David’s awestruck friend exclaims.
Where were you when they were naming this movie, kid?
“Project Almanac” is yet another entry in the ever expanding ‘found-footage’ genre of films typically reserved for mid-tier horror flicks (of which this is blessedly not one.) The stylistic choice will forever beg questions such as “Why are they filming this?,” “Why are they STILL filming this?,” and “Ahh! Everything is exploding, who would actually still be filming this?!” Of course there is also the greatest unanswerable question of them all, “Who on earth found this outlandish footage and went to the trouble to skillfully edit it into a feature film?” Saturday matinee viewings should not require this many rhetorical sit-ups.
Against the odds Israelite’s film is entertaining and fun, following the (mostly) believable choices hormonal teenagers who are able to muck about with space-time would make. It is at times a tense viewing, though often undercut by silly choices, such as the camera ‘accidentally’ (but repeatedly) falling on Gardener’s plentiful cleavage during action sequences, or how the negative cosmic dominoes sequence caused by the teens time traveling muckery seems entirely incidental, especially after a character draws it on a chalkboard. There is also the matter of David’s father’s mysterious disappearance, which plays out so thoughtlessly in the finale the screenwriter deserves a polite golf clap for exercising restraint, or another for bungling the beat so thoroughly it appears intentional.
Characters in “Project Almanac” name drop other time travel films like “Looper,” “Terminator” and “Time Cop” while still remaining blissfully unaware that perhaps visiting and trying to play a prank on a past iteration of yourself might be a pretty rotten idea. Or that traveling back in time to repeatedly win the lottery might have some nasty ramifications outside your own life. But like so many films, this is one where the pop-culture lessons hard learned in cinema can only be referenced, not put into practice. Time marches forward and we with it, though in our heart of hearts we darkly dream to ignore the lessons of Doc Brown and leap backwards to try it all again.