Welcome To ‘Project Almanac’ (Movie Review)
Project Almanac: 3 out of 5
Quinn: It’s yesterday!
Project Almanac feels like the result of producer Michael Bay taking the film Primer and throwing it into a room where the MTV Films scientists could poke, prod, analyze, disassemble, and reassemble it into a time travel film that could appeal to teenagers of today. That is not inherently a bad thing, but it also does not mean this film will have much lasting appeal for the future, compared to other time travel films or other films that also utilize the ‘found footage’ format to better effect. So with that in mind, despite some clever ideas and an energetic sense of momentum, Project Almanac is only so much fun, if you don’t think too hard about it, but innocent enough to work for what it is, with the target audience likely willing to have enough to enjoy.
Even though this is a film about time travel, the premise is about as straight-forward as it gets. David Raskin (Jonny Weston) discovers the blueprints of a time machine in his basement (as one does) and being the genius inventor that he is, works with his friends to build the machine. It works and while they attempt to keep things together with a loose set of rules, they soon find that bending the space-time continuum to their will has dangerous consequences.
While some may be sick of the shaky-cam format utilized here, it has some benefits as well as negatives that give the film its own sort of energy. On the plus side, having this more personal point of view of what is going on does allow for what seems like more natural performances from some of the young actors involved. That homemade feel tends to get that across, whereas more traditional filmmaking could keep some distanced from the sort of chemistry that these friends clearly share with each other. In an age where we do not really get films like The Goonies or The Sandlot very often, having the modern edge applied to a film about teenagers makes sense and could even serve as a commentary of sorts, were the film to go a bit deeper into what it was trying to do under the surface.
Unfortunately, the negative effects of this format, which many find to be tired these days, are largely the same as they always are. Basically, we still end up wondering why filming is really taking place, even when there is a brief bit of dialogue that is supposed to explain the reason. Putting that aside though, you then wonder about who edited this thing, given various cinematic choices made in the realm of a world where someone edited all this together (and added slow-motion) in the way it has been done. Sure, one can argue that it is just a film and it does not necessarily need to provide too much reason for the stylized way it has been shot, but I tend to think about these finer points when the film slows down enough to not keep me as invested in the main story as it would like me to be.
With that in mind, Project Almanac does reach a point where it lulls and meanders in the middle. While the film is happy to ramp up the sense of exploration in terms of the crazy things these kids do, now that they have harnessed time travel, the pace also slacks for the sake of some jokey bits that sometimes work (science presentation, bully payback) and sometimes don’t (food trucks and a lot of Lollapalooza). This would all be better or at least negligible if we really liked all of these characters, but that leads to the other issue that is an important part of all films like this.
As the lead, Jonny Weston is fine as David. Allen Evangelista is also good as his just-as-smart best friend. Then you get everyone else, who are all basically fine in terms of showing that this cast clearly has good chemistry together, but when looking at it from some distance, become quite familiar. Sam Lerner is the dumber, funny-ish friend; Sofia Black D’Elia is Jessie, the requisite ‘hot girl’ David pines for; and Virginia Gardner is David’s sister, Chris, who both gets the best line in the movie and is inexplicably turned into a non-descript female character, rather than something more meaningful (the film literally ditches her plot potential to see her rock out in a bikini top at a concert).
There are also issues in how this film seems to play around with its own logic and rules. It takes the time travel mechanic seriously enough to get some neat special effects sequences that spell out potential danger for the characters, if not handled properly, but then backs down from the inherent complications of how to activate the device in favor of some quick retrofitting to make the machine fit into a backpack, with the use of an iPhone as the remote control. Discussing what takes place in the latter half of the film’s time traveling drama becomes more of an issue, because there seem to be a lot of half-baked ideas that are never explained, because we have to suffer through the seemingly smart David making every worst decision possible, with no time to spend on characters who likely have lots of deleted scenes (see: Amy Landecker as David’s mother).
It may sound like I am coming down hard on Project Almanac, but it is only because it is hard not to get into the things about a film that are supposedly clever touches, when they really just lead to more questions not so simply answered. Really though, from a surface-level viewpoint, Project Almanac is decent entertainment, with some fun ideas that are better left as ones you do not think too hard about. I could have done without references to actual time travel movies, let alone the presence of a chalkboard that appears out of thin air, in order for characters to explain things to others (because this movie apparently exists in a reality where all time travel movies exist, except Back to the Future Part 2), but with some of these issues pushed aside, there is a solid genre exercise put into play here. The film may not be as good as something like Chronicle, which utilizes a similar aesthetic and tone, but also works as a deconstruction of its own genre (and provides a great reason for the camera to always be on), but it is much better than the headache that was Project X. So enjoy this time travel feature as much as you may want, unless you already did…in the future!
Adam: Whatever we did had some crazy ripple effects!