Project Almanac opens with David Raskin (Jonny Weston), the film’s technological prodigy-hero, unable to contain himself. He’s giddy and joyful about his futuristic work and the possibility of continuing his experiment at MIT, and this is even before he finds out that the makings of a time-travel device are lying around in his basement. David is driven by the thrill and challenge of invention, but the filmmakers are less interested in conveying this unique sort of stimulation than they are intent on delivering the same misogynistic, faux-modernistic jolts of trashy humor and labored plotting that typify the films of co-producer Michael Bay.
Anchored to found-footage aesthetics, which are only beneficial in their ability to keep the story in the moment, the bedrock of Project Almanac is based in the past, namely the day that David’s father (Gary Weeks), a DARPA honcho, died. It’s only after seeing his present-day self in footage from his seventh birthday that David, along with his best buds, Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), is spurred to poke around in Dad’s workroom and discovers the titular remnants of his late father’s life work. The script takes the time to show the trio experimenting and failing with the machine, but it’s less to illustrate that discovering time travel is, well, difficult than to guide Weston’s character into a romance with Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), whose car battery proves crucial to David’s endeavor.
Sadly, Jessie is used to first tempt David away from safe usage of the machine, and eventually becomes little more than the proverbial carrot in front of his horse; when she’s in danger, it’s what she inspires him to do that’s of paramount concern. But she isn’t the only female character who’s defined in relation to male desire. Such as Christina (Virginia Gardner), David’s sister, the young woman behind the camera who only reveals herself to push along a rote romance with Adam—or to add to the sizable count of shots fixed on women’s cleavage or posteriors. And not for nothing does David also save the family home from being sold and find a job for his frazzled mother (Amy Landecker) when she can do neither.
What’s most interesting about all of David and company’s jaunts through time is how easygoing and small-scale they are. The first trips are made to prevent bullying and avoid a failing test grade, and at one point, they feel comfortable enough to put the stability of the space-time continuum in jeopardy to get backstage passes to Lolapalooza. Throughout, the brazen strain to make the film look and sound as hip as possible is constantly felt, from the innumerable mentions of social-media sites and apps, to the Imagine Dragons cameo, to the gang’s retro plans to see Biggie and 2Pac in concert.
It’s the same sort of culture shock that you could get walking into a Spencer’s or Hot Topic, and like those stores, the film co-ops these elements to sell a vision of the new youth. This might all be a bit more palatable if the filmmakers weren’t also giving up about a quarter of their film to product placement. All of this pandering renders the grim spike in narrative stakes toward the end feel false and forced, and zaps Project Almanac of the same sense of discovery, anticipation, and wonder that’s written across David’s face in that very first shot.