Frank Sinatra (via Paul Anka) is probably the only person who has ever had too few regrets to mention; the rest of us find solace in fantasies of going back and doing it again. The smart and super-slick teen time-machine picture Project Almanac is the latest incarnation of this would-coulda-shoulda pipe-dream — a movie so knowing that its characters reference Looper, Groundhog Day, and maybe five other films that lay out the pros and cons of rewriting the past. They’ve seen what happens but they never learn!
The visual wrinkle in Project Almanac is that it’s shot with one or two video cameras wielded by the characters, which struck me as dumb (as well as nausea-inducing) at the start but proves to be a cool device for our heroes to look at what they’ve just done and go back and do it differently. (Once something’s on video, it evidently can’t be altered the way the rest of reality can, which could be a metaphor for something.)
It’s a video that kicks off the whole saga. The tall, cute teenage physics wonk David Raskin (Jonny Weston) and his blonde, leggy sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) find a camera belonging to their long-dead dad in which the teenage David can be glimpsed in a mirror at his own 7-year-old birthday party! After the requisite repetition of “WTF”s, the two also uncover what appears to be the heart of a temporal shifter (i.e., time-travel device) that needs only hydrogen, a suitable power generator, and some [fill in tech specs] to get going backwards. David’s pals — the horny Jewish nerd Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Asian-American Allen (Adam Le) — provide both assistance and banter, and the team is joined at the last minute by David’s dark, leggy crush Jessie (Sofia Black D'Elia).
Much of Project Almanac is straight-out goofy, romantic wish-fulfillment: winning the lottery so David’s mom won’t have to sell their house to pay for his tuition to MIT, buying a Maserati, going back to and backstage at Coachella ... The friends agree that when they go, they’ll all go together, because you know what happens when people are careless in the past (butterfly wings and all that). The problem is that poor David is too much of a cowardly twerp to tell Jessie he likes her, which drives the disappointed Jessie off, which makes David think, If only I’d kissed her when she said ... and then, Wait a minute, I can kiss her when she says ... Pretty soon he’s scrawling variables all over a blackboard to try to undo the tragedies that follow. Next time someone says, “Why do I have to learn math? I’m not going to be a mathematician,” you can say, “To plot all the variables in your time-travel fantasies, stupid.”
The mood gets pretty dark and desperate for a larkish teen pic — a tribute to director Dean Israelite and cinematographer Matthew Lloyd, who make the handheld camerawork look spontaneous but get what they need (physically and emotionally) into every frame. (One mistake: The camera is supposedly held by Gardner’s Christina, who’s too pretty to keep behind the lens for most of the film.) Michael Bay was an executive producer, which might account for the female leads’ preference for tight tops and short-shorts while the males are allowed to be as fundamentally dweebish as Bay. But on the whole, this is a good B-movie that hits it modest marks.
Project Almanac is also one of those studio products that have obviously been tested and re-tested with target audiences — which, when you think about it, is just like our time-travel ideal. The audience gets restless during one scene, so you go back and trim it and serve it up again. Maybe the new version screws up a transition to the next scene, so you go back and readjust, rewriting the past until the audience gives you A’s on their test sheets and at last you can say, “This is the way it should have been — and now it is.”