Project Almanac, the "found footage" time travel movie in theaters today, is kinda cute. And some people have praised the self-aware way it references other, better time-travel films like Bill and Ted and Looper. But on reflection, that self-awareness isn't a strength, it's the reason Project Almanac falters.
Project Almanac is one of those movies where you absolutely must turn off your brain if you're going to enjoy any of it. Nothing in this movie makes even the slightest amount of sense — from the time-travel logic to most of the decisions made by the main characters — and you just have to run with it. Unfortunately, the self-referentiality of this film winds up being kind of like a prosthetic brain — Project Almanac references other time travel movies as a way of covering up the fact that its storytelling is lackluster at best.
That said, this movie is fun enough, if you manage to turn off your brain (and being buzzed on your intoxicant of choice would probably help a lot.)
In Project Almanac, David (Jonny Weston) is a nerd who discovers that his long-dead father left the core of a time machine, with plans for building it, hidden in his basement. Soon he and his friends are abusing the heck out of time travel, doing all the usual stuff: 1) Winning the lottery. 2) Getting back at bullies. 3) Acing that chemistry pop quiz you flunked. 4) Going to Lollapalooza. 5) Getting more "Likes" on Instagram.
But then they discover that their changes to the past have caused ripple effects, and shit has gotten jacked up. Just like The Butterfly Effect or whatever. Now they have to fix it, but everything they do to fix it just causes more problems.
At its heart, this movie is basically a remake of the hit Disney Channel movie Minutemen, where kids use a time machine to get back at bullies and become more popular in high school. I kind of loved Minutemen for its goofy slapsticky approach to time-wrangling:
And there's a lot to love about Project Almanac, too — I kept getting the feeling there was a great movie in there somewhere, but it had gotten lost in the shuffle. David and his friends have a fun nerdy rapport, that goes back to when they were little kids, and there are moments here and there where they feel like real kids hanging out. (Side note: I think the "teen found footage" sub-subgenre really depends on that. Earth to Echo was a good example of a predictable film that was elevated by the sense that the characters were real kids.)
All the scenes of them hacking hardware are terrific — someone really did their homework for a lot of this stuff (even if that person didn't tell anyone how to pronounce "802.11g".) There's a lot of awesome soldering and schematics in this film, and they come up with some really clever workarounds for their problems. Plus they learn how to control their time machine using a smartphone app, with sliders for how far back they're going in time. Which is just excellent.
And here and there, there are some really fun uses of the time-travel stuff, like when one of them sneaks into his own house and draws on his own neck, causing the smiley face to slowly appear on the future version of himself as well. Or when they accidentally bring a dog forward in time one day, only to see fliers everywhere because the dog has now been missing for 24 hours.
When this movie is just screwing around with time travel and having fun with it, it's a pretty fun ride — the problems really start when Project Almanac remembers that it's supposed to have a plot, which happens about halfway through. Or maybe two-thirds of the way through.
A lot of the film's efforts to raise the stakes revolve around the romance between David and his cute classmate Jess, which is one of the blandest and most unengaging romances I've seen on screen in ages. The more the movie tries to veer away from being about a group of friends and towards being about a romance, the less it works.
And then there's the fact that the movie wants to start raising the stakes, but its handling of time travel has already turned so incoherent that it's hard to care — especially when the movie keeps changing the rules on us and making shit up as it goes along.
This is where the self-referentiality of Project Almanac starts to bug me, too — this film is very keen to reference time-travel movies that had, at least somewhat, thought out the logic of their time travel. (Okay, Looper had issues. But still.) It feels like a weaker version of hand-waving, like Project Almanac just wants to say "This stuff has already been done before, so there's no point in trying to get it right."
Towards the end of Project Almanac, it feels like stuff is just sort of happening for the sake of happening.
And that's the other thing about Project Almanac — it tries to make you care about things that it doesn't care about, itself. Like, will David be able to follow his dream and go to MIT? Will his mom have to sell their house? What will happen to David's sister? Potential sources of Goonies-esque conflict are brought up and then forgotten, and even the over-arching storyline of David's dead father is drained of real emotional weight.
Even though Project Almanac inspires comparisons to Chronicle, the other recent found-footage teen science fiction movie, Almanac doesn't have a smidgen of Chronicle's character depth and boldness. I kept thinking of the scene in Chronicle where Andrew is trying to lose his virginity but throws up instead — which is the kind of territory Almanac is too MTV-identified to wander into.
In fact, Project Almanac feels like a strong argument that the "found footage" format, as a means of making microbudget movies without worrying too much how they look, is becoming cheap in more ways than one. Part of the conceit of this film is that these kids film themselves at school — including in the classroom — using a gigantic 10-year-old camcorder, and nobody ever says "stop filming." A few times, someone does turn to the camera and tell David's sister, "You don't have to film everything, you know." But the amount of time these kids spend filming their lives on a clunky big camcorder, without anybody thinking that's odd, strains credulity. And there's no explanation for why they're doing it. They mention that they want to document their time-travel experiments, but that has nothing to do with filming themselves every other waking minute.
That said, there are a few moments, here and there, where the movie plays around with the conventions of videotape and time-travel — the iconography of rewinding and taping over something, and the reality-warping appearance of glitches on a videotape. In a few moments, when the film calls attention to the fact that it's shot on video, and uses that as a metaphor for revisiting and changing the past, it seems to be groping towards something fresh, something that would have justified its "found footage" format.
Oh, and the other problem with this film is that it's pretty sexist. The three guys are all supernerds who understand everything, whereas the two female leads need everything explained to them in words of one syllable. This is a film that feels unselfconscious about having the girls say things like "Speak English!" when the nerds say pretty basic stuff about time travel. (I get that the audience needs things explained to them, but there are other ways to do that.)
All in all, I kind of enjoyed chunks of Project Almanac for what it was. If this movie had just committed to being a stupid teen dramedy all the way through, I probably would have been completely on board. But because Project Almanac has seen a lot of better time-travel films, it feels obligated to start telling the same old cautionary tale about playing God, instead of just letting the story find its own resolution. As it is, I would definitely watch this movie on Netflix, late at night, with an ample supply of refreshments.