The subject of time travel and how it’s handled in film has always proven itself to be a bit of a hurdle for most science fiction writers to overcome. While impossible to portray with absolute 100% accuracy, there are still ways it can be well-conceived and come across in a plausible enough fashion, usually with a careful combination of writing smarts and respect for the audience’s intelligence; which brings us to Project Almanac, previously called Welcome to Yesterday, but the title was changed presumably because the studio wanted to cash in on young audiences’ fondness for almanacs. The film follows a group of teenagers who discover a device capable of time travel and begin to enjoy their new-found discovery to its fullest extent before things start going horribly wrong. And given all the ingredients behind this particular production, the film is quite honestly a bit better than you would expect from a found footage film about time traveling high-schoolers released in January distributed by MTV films and produced by Michael Bay.
First and foremost, one of the film’s strongest assets is the cast of characters. While they’re not the most complicated or well-rounded group of young adults portrayed onscreen in recent memory, the broadly drawn personalities of each character is displayed well enough and they work off one another in a pretty watchable fashion. Nobody in particular stands out, but everyone within the ensemble is given enough room for their characters to breath and feel like individuals apart from the group dynamic. Kudos are also due for having two likable, non air-headed female members of the group, only one(!) of which is given a role in an unnecessary romantic subplot. Admittedly nothing to write home about in the grand scheme of 21st century cinema, but for a film that Michael Bay had anything to do with, it’s at least worth making a note of.
And for all the head-scratching time travel logic the film attempts to pass off as legitimate (more on that later), one area it totally nails is the short-sighted and self-centered attitude the average teenager would bring to the prospect of being blessed with the capabilities of traveling through time. Keep in mind, these aren’t professional scientists or well-traveled international activists we’re dealing with, but rather teenagers in 2015. Therefore, it’d make total sense for their imaginations only to reach as far as where their own self-interests limit them. To the average public school attendee between the ages of 14-18, going back in time to ace a tough oral report or taking personal revenge on the school bully would make infinitely more sense than meeting Martin Luther King Jr., or stopping a devastating catastrophe. Of course this might limit the potential for more creative dramatic storytelling, but it’s easily the most realistic aspect to the story.
The main appeal of this film is simply pure escapism; nothing more, nothing less. Fanciful, fleeting wish fulfillment for the viewer and the experience of vicariously watching a relatable cast of characters experience something you know deep down is impossible. And on that front the film is a modest success, but unfortunately the creative team behind this can’t keep it moving at full throttle forever. Once the fun and games end for the characters, the film contrives a series of predictable, heavily foreshadowed consequences for their time jumps, all of which get sillier and sillier as the plot progresses towards a climax where the slate is inevitably wiped clean. Adding obstacles and conflict for the characters to overcome is perfectly fine in and of itself, but none of the dramatic sections in the third act are nearly as compelling as what’s hinted at early on. But all things considered, the fact that there was even potential for more substantive character drama at all is more than we could’ve expected in the first place.
Ultimately no time travel script is going to be airtight, and it’s likely that most general audience members will be aware of that going in. That said, Project Almanac really pushes the limit of plausibility and those bothersome here-not-there loopholes found in nearly every film containing time travel as a plot device turn up a few times too often. Occasionally, sensible storytelling is left behind in favor of jumping from setpiece to setpiece at the most convenient possible speed, without paying attention to the inconsistencies being created. Fortunately, the film exudes enough of a carefree, energetic tone moving forward that certain plot elements don’t manifest themselves as questionable (and even that’s being generous) until you’ve already left the theater. Only when the film tries to build legitimate stakes and act as though the characters are in serious danger do the mechanics of the science behind time travelling really come into play regarding moving the plot forward, and with these wishy-washy at best explanations of said science at hand, it would’ve been wise not to rely too heavily on them for crafting a more gripping narrative.
When you get right down to it, Project Almanac is considerably better than it has any right to be. While there are occasional flourishes of the disaster this could’ve been, and the believability of its premise wears out its welcome sooner than the film is prepared for, the strengths of its likable characters and consistently jovial, free-spirited tone elevate the proceedings enough to the point where the alarming number of plot holes and logical inconsistencies don’t impact it as much as you might think. Far from a must see, but all things considered, there are much worse ways to kill an hour and a half at the movies, especially in January.