by Ken B.
I find it utterly baffling that a movie as disorganized as Project Almanac could actually exist. There was a point where I believed that the film would be simply alright had director Dean Israelite and screenwriters Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman cut the horrendous “found footage” element from the proceedings, but then I realized that the sloppy storytelling and lopsided narrative would still remain. It is not without merit, which somehow makes it all the more disappointing. Here is a movie that explores the generous and high-concept storyline of time travel and turns it into little more than a visualization of a particularly shallow impression of a teenager’s bucket list. The film doesn’t show interest in concepts like the butterfly effect until its final minutes. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “a film is a terrible thing to waste”.
The story goes like this – David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is a science-enthusiastic high school senior who aspires to receive a scholarship from MIT. He lives with his sister Christina (Virginia Gardener) and widowed mother Kathy (Amy Landecker), and hangs out with his best friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner). David’s father (Gary Weeks) was an accomplished scientist who died in a car crash many years ago, and when looking through his old man’s workshop, David finds a machine designed for the seemingly impossible: time travel. Vowing to record everything that follows, David, Adam, and Quinn experiment with this invention, and upon finding success, decide to start with the small stuff: David is able to win over his crush, Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black-D’Elia), Quinn is able to give a presentation in chemistry class over and over until he passes. Then, the group is able to travel to Lollapalooza and use retroactively purchased VIP passes. Then they correctly “predict” the numbers in the lottery. Sooner or later, as their “jumps” get bigger, the effects of changing the past come into play, and it ain’t pretty.
Let me stress that the sequences described in the paragraph above, featuring the mundane and the extraordinary, the result of time travel but not the direct examination thereof, takes up an inordinate amount of Project Almanac’s runtime – I watched this movie to see how they stumble across the technology and how they try to balance it within their lives, not for a handful of sequences where most of its contents could have come out of a regular high school story. Listen, I’m not saying I wouldn’t be interested in the stuff that is depicted if such an opportunity would be presented to me, but time travel plots are among the highest concept and most complex in fiction, and when you don’t do anything new or exciting with the material, it can often be seen as a letdown. I’m not saying that everything in the genre has to try and match up to a classic like Back to the Future, but you’d think there’d still be room for a new element or a fresh angle. Apparently not. At times, it seems the script is mostly preoccupied with showing you how cool Ferraris are and how they were able to get the guys from Imagine Dragons to do a cameo, rather than explore its own setup and outline.
But at the same time, what it goes off-track with is done with intention to build character background and chemistry, even if it doesn’t really work. What hurts the film irrevocably is the inexplicable decision to shoot in a found footage style – basically implying that the whole thing is a documentary, the video recovered from people’s phones. It’s distracting, with the hand-held aesthetic sometimes making it hard to figure out what’s happening on screen. Furthermore, I can’t recall a single plot point that is set into motion simply because the main characters are recording everything. Sometimes, this kind of stylistic decision works, but only when the movie depends on the implication that everything we’re seeing was candid, “real” footage. Project Almanac doesn’t really do much in the way of explaining why we should put up with shaky, unstable cameras for 106 minutes.
While the characters have their moments and the cast goes well together, this movie is far too irritating to be tolerable. The writing only lights occasional flames of intrigue or originality beyond the immediate setup and climax, and the cinematography is a real nightmare. I’m guessing that I could have enjoyed it a little bit more had ten to fifteen minutes of needless chit-chat in the middle been spliced, and the lengthy deleted scenes feature on the Blu-ray tells me that Israelite had no real problem with cutting material when needed. Project Almanac isn’t a total loss, but we’re talking about the endless abilites of the time travel subgenre. Surely, there’s a lot that hasn’t been tapped into yet.