Perhaps the only time-travel movie in recent memory to subscribe to anthropic principle, “Project Almanac” does the time-travel genre justice. The movie doesn’t try to explain how time travel works, but it does hint at how the universe handles paradoxes: by deleting the witnesses.

Project Almanac

Quality 16 and Rave
Paramount Pictures

That’s the anthropic principle at work – the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. This is why the future-version of our protagonist David (Jonny Weston, “Chasing Mavericks”) is annihilated at the end (beginning?), but the future-version of the camera remains intact.

“Project Almanac” takes off in the style of “Chronicle.” It’s a found-footage film where irresponsible kids come into an unreasonable degree of power. The content of the movie is presumably found by the protagonists on the second iteration of their adventure, at the end of the movie.

The cast is cute. David is a cutout geek, and his posse is equally “Breakfast Club.” The group’s camaraderie separates “Project Almanac” from time-travel classics like “Back to the Future.” For the first half of the movie, the whole group goes back in time together. The conflict arises when David takes it on himself to solve the butterfly-effect consequences of previous time trips by himself.

In “The Butterfly Effect” (another time-travel flick), there was a supernatural aspect to justify why everything always went wrong. In “Donnie Darko,” there was only one version of actions Donnie could ever take, and the mood of the movie was predisposed toward metaphor rather than science; the prime mover of films like those is a supernatural overmind. Whereas, in “Project Almanac,” the prime mover is the vulnerable protagonist himself, à la “Doctor Who.”

Because the time travel in “Project Almanac” is supposed to be pure sci-fi rather than some crystallized narrative tapped from overdrawn wells of Greek pathos and “human condition” pablum, there’s no sci-fi-compatible reason for why things can’t actually go perfectly in this plot. David says there are no second chances, but he’s totally wrong. In proper wish-fulfillment time travel, there are arbitrarily many chances.

The frantic jostle of a found-footage film works well within the cast of Instagram-age teenagers, but the group’s reaction to finding a time machine in their friend’s basement doesn’t quite align with the gravity of the moment, and the pseudo-scientific babble is transparent and reductive. Weston is charismatic enough to carry the movie regardless, but there are kinks, and they are noticeable.

Though it lacks the infectious magic of “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” or “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and though it doesn’t mind-fuck with the intensity of “Donnie Darko” or “Source Code,” this movie is every bit on par with “Primer,” “Looper” and “Groundhog Day” and it’s a much stronger package than “Chronicle.” Time-travel movies are a special brand of enjoyable, and this one fits into the genre like a cog in a watch.

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