While the time travel film isn't a genre of its own, it's a categorical topic that's certainly saturated. The notion of moving through time and space has been discussed through several different genres over the years, and it's often utilized when the writers are really scraping the barrel for new directions in which to take a franchise. Coming from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes generator, Project Almanac (originally titled Welcome to Yesterday) is finally being treated to a theatrical release after a couple major distribution delays. Apparently, the move in dates have been blamed on Michael Bay for wanting to work with the film in post-production, which is never a great sign. Unfortunately, the results are rather underwhelming.
When searching for a project idea in order to participate in a sponsorship opportunity for MIT, David Raskin (Jonny Weston) comes across clues that lead to a secret compartment in his late father's basement. He enlists the help of a group of his friends in order to build the device listed in a series of documents: a time machine. It's all fun and games until they begin to change the present by affecting even the smallest details of the past, placing them on a journey to set things back to the way they once were.
The problem that all time travel films must overcome is the set of rules that it chooses to use, and how it manages to explain them to the audience. Titles such as About Time make these rules extremely simple, and the story quickly moves on to more important matters. Unfortunately, Project Almanac spends a large chunk of its running time trying to explain how it all works, and not enough time exploring the characters or their adventures. As the consequences of their actions begin to take hold, the rules become progressively more contradictory by the minute. This is the sign of a poor screenplay on behalf of Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan, which only continues to slide down the steep decline that is this film's story progression. However, since this is a found footage flick, as well as a film about time travel, it also must play by the rules of that style, which isn't handled much better. Aside from the entrance video for MIT and for the purposes of testing the technology, the reason for filming every single thing doesn't make sense. The filmmakers have failed to incorporate the simple rules of time travel, that It resorts to referencing movies that have done it better, such as Terminator, Groundhog Day, and Looper, rather than actually succeeding itself.
David has been fond of one particular girl at his school for quite some time, and she has become a part of this time traveling group. Her name is Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), and the awkward sexual tension can be felt from a mile away. While some of it feels a bit too obvious, there are moments that are handled rather well by the screenplay. There's a particular scene that takes place at a specific music festival, and while it may run on for a bit too long, there's a private moment shared between David and Jessie that actually feels fairly genuine. This high school romance proves to be the motive behind many of David's actions. Some of their discussions prove to be a few of the only honest sequences to be found throughout the running time. However, the relationships between the remainder of the friends feels incredibly weak. There should be a greater sense of immersion held between David, Adam (Allen Evangelista), and Quinn (Sam Lerner). The friendship between each individual feels incredibly superficial, as it's rather difficult to be convinced of these connections. When their actions in the past begin to affect the present, Project Almanac takes a serious turn that doesn't fit the picture very well.
Director Dean Israelite's sci-fi thriller certainly has its cons, but that isn't to say that it doesn't have its moments of excellence. The fun doesn't truly begin until the time machine has been built, and each member of the group tries to figure out what to do with this power. They decide to fix some of the more immediate problems that face them in their lives, such as bad grades, facing a bully, and financial problems. Each one of these sequences are filled with laughs that feel true to the characters. It takes more than a few times in order to entirely succeed in all of these goals, making for some well-placed humor. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that there isn't more of this, since this is most certainly the strongest asset that the film has. This playful tone flows naturally when it's there, but it doesn't take long for Project Almanac to take on a more serious perspective that even further contradicts everything that has taken place previously. Characters that were once portrayed as being geniuses begin to make really dumb decisions that an educated human being would never make.
Even though Michael Bay is only listed as a producer, Project Almanac certainly makes us feel as if he's sitting in the director's chair. Even though it adds a found footage dimension to the picture, the overall tone feels like Transformers meets any "shaky cam" film that you can think of. While the camera movements aren't too dizzying, a lot of questionable visual decisions have been made by director Dean Israelite. A large amount of people walking in between the camera and the subject make for a "flickering" effect that feels quite sickening. Even with all of these issues, the scale introduced during the music festival brings an MTV feel that works. It will instantly draw teenagers into the craziness of the event, which further places us within the minds of these teenagers who are looking to have the time of their lives with this technology.
Just like any other Platinum Dunes production, get ready for some obvious advertisements from GoPro, Red Bull, and more. Like these sequences, Project Almanac feels incredibly superficial. There's a semi-decent film hidden somewhere, but it's far underneath the surface of the clutter. This is a feature that succeeds most in its more playful moments, although the filmmakers don't allow them to linger. Rather, a jarring shift into more serious material thwarts the strongest portions of the feature. When the credits begin to roll, audiences are left with a series of contradictory time travel rules and a found footage technique that doesn't mesh well with the remainder of the film. Project Almanac places its faith in all of the wrong places. Rent it.