Project Almanac (2015)
I’m going to take a stand right now and declare that Hollywood should simply stop making found footage movies. I don’t hate the subgenre itself, and in fact a found footage approach can be rather interesting if given proper attention and care, but that is just not happening nearly enough. Too often Hollywood execs view found footage as a hook and slap it onto a story that does not need to be told in this limited style. There’s no reason that a perfectly fine buddy cop movie like End of Watch needed a found footage angle, except that’s probably how it was sold. If you’re going to do found footage you better have a god reason why your characters are recording every moment, and most do not. You better stick to the principle that the only viewpoint is from the camera, and most do not. And you better stick to the limitations of this viewpoint, meaning who is editing these things after the fact and adding popular music to make montages? Found footage is too often underdeveloped in approach, a lazy selling point because “the kids” today like documenting themselves doing everything. But really, can you name the last found footage hit? The Paranormal Activity franchise is on the downturn and the last critically lauded one was 2012’s Chronicle. Don’t just stop making found footage movies because they’re too often lackluster; stop making them because the public has grown indifferent. Now, with all that being said, the time travel flick Project Almanac proves once again to be a film that never needed to be found footage to work. As far as January releases go (usually a dumping ground for studio bombs) it’s better than most, but the poorly titled sci-fi drama wastes its premise on the myopic doldrums of youth.
David Raskin (Johnny Weston) wants to get into M.I.T. but his hard-working mother doesn’t have the money to make this happen. He discovers an old video of his seventh birthday party and is shocked to see an image in the background that resembles him as a teenager. He and his friends, Quinn and Adam, investigate the video. They enter the basement lab that used to belong to David’s father, until he died in a car accident shortly after that birthday recording. There they find plans for a time machine and the boys busily go to work assembling it, perfecting it, and charging it. Jessie (Sophia Black-D’Elia), a popular girl at school, stumbles into their first experiment and becomes part of the group. They have to keep this a secret and they must only travel back as a group. The freedom and possibilities are exhilarating, but soon enough David discovers a spiral of consequences that are difficult to correct without scrapping everything.
From a structural standpoint, this movie gets pretty lopsided and completely misuses the possibilities it established even as it arbitrarily throws its own rules out the window. Project Almanac takes far too long to get the time machine working. The teens discover the manual but it takes almost the complete first act before they successfully travel in time. Why do we have to wait a full 30 minutes and watch trial after trial? It’s not exactly like the audience demands a sense of scientific accuracy. Once the teens do travel through time, they set their sights very low: pass a test, get revenge on a bully, win the local lottery, and go to Lolapalooza. There is the limitation of only going back three weeks into the past, which eventually disappears, but could these kids not aim higher in their goals? When they do go to Lolapalooza, the movie drags and drags, and it’s here where I started to theorize what became of this film (more on that below). Once we come back from the festival, David decides to jump back alone to stop himself from blowing his opening with his crush, Jessie. However, there are disastrous consequences stemming from this and he has to debate whether to undo his good fortune with Jessie. Want to know what those consequences include? Seventy-seven people dying in a plane crash. Our main character seriously agonizes about keeping his new girl or the lives of seventy-seven people. And what would he lose? It’s not like he can’t be suave around Jessie ANY OTHER TIME. All he has to do is say something and kiss her. The hesitation and struggle over this is comically absurd, but the struggle illuminates where Almanac could have gone. These teens could have used time travel to save lives, but I guess that’s not as fun as seeing Imagine Dragons backstage and dancing.
Another problem is that, from a time travel standpoint, this stuff doesn’t really follow its own rules. The gang goes back at several points to repeat the same goal, but at no point do they run into different iterations of themselves. If they keep going back to fix things, and fail, and then go back again, that’s a continuation of one ongoing timeline, not a do-over. Time doesn’t reset. With every time travel story there’s the nagging nature of paradoxes but Project Almanac just ignores them, hence the lack of doppelgangers. At one point, Quinn even seeks out his past self to pull a prank, which sounds really stupidly dangerous from a space-time continuum standpoint to me. The movie ignores paradoxes… until it doesn’t. The entire third act is about the consequences of paradoxes, and now all of a sudden it matters. That doesn’t work. The main third act conflict is David not wanting to lose his girlfriend. He keeps jumping back to fix this and fix that but it’s all to save his girlfriend, which is pretty dumb, as I‘ve pointed out already that Jessie could still decide on her own at any point in the future to be his gal. Then there’s the conclusion, as we all know that we have to get back to that birthday party at some point. I consider myself a smart man but the end doesn’t make any sense because (spoilers to follow) it invalidates the timeline that we witnessed. David makes it so the events will not happen and the machine will not be constructed. But why is there evidence? Why is there still a tape detailing this whole process? It should be wiped.
Requisite found footage griping: why do they record every damn thing in this movie? The gang even breaks into their high school to steal hydrogen canisters from a locked science lab. Why would you record your crime spree? Why would you record people just driving in cars or walking up to school? Why would you record any of this? How do you clearly pick up audio from two people at a distance, mind you, at a freaking outdoor concert with lots of noise to cancel out any discernible dialogue?
There are moments that I really liked, flashes that show how much fun or even clever Almanac could have been under other circumstances. One of these moments involves Quinn going back to save his grade. Originally he failed his chemistry presentation, so he thinks he’ll easily pass thanks to the foreknowledge that time travel offers. He goes back, lists the first ten elements on the periodic table, and then his teacher asks him another question he wasn’t prepared for. He goes back, prepared for the two, and then the teacher asks another he wasn’t prepared for. Over the course of going back, he is actually forced to study to prepare for this presentation, and so even though he thought he would use time travel to be lazy, it forced him into doing what he should have done in the first place. When they go back to win the lottery, they accidentally write down one wrong number, so their first jackpot prize isn’t the full amount. They bicker about going back, whose fault it was, and then the film cuts immediately to them holding the full amount in a novelty check. All the characters are devoid of excitement, because that excited moment of revelry already happened, and now this is just an exercise to get over. The photographer chides them to be more excited. That is a fun moment. The characters are rather likeable. There’s another moment where Jessie realizes that David went back to fix a slip-up so they would end up together. And she reacts exactly how she should, wounded and mistrusting. How can she trust what he says now? How can she not doubt every moment being carefully pre-programmed for a desired result? She was manipulated. This confrontation was missing from About Time where Rachel McAdams would have learned that her charming husband traveled back in time dozens of times to perfect his courtship, thus manipulating her own sense of choice. Poor Rachel McAdams never finds out, which seems like a completely blown dramatic development, and lives in cherished ignorance instead. At least Jessie gets to know the truth and behaves naturally. There are other little moments that are fun but they are distractions from what could have been.
Allow me to do some serious speculation about Project Almanac’s own past. This film was originally supposed to come out a year prior hence why every date is referenced as 2014. MTV Films expressed some interest in the movie and it was shelved and likely retooled. Except with time travel films, retooling can be pretty monstrous with its carefully placed plot beats. Here’s what I think happened. Originally, the third act was all about David going back to save his father from dying in that car crash. He likely does but there are dire consequences, and so he keeps going back to try and mitigate the negative repercussions while still keeping his father. Doesn’t that sound like a much more emotionally involving storyline? He’s got far more personal stakes in this scenario than simply losing his girlfriend who he can regain. He can’t regain dear old dead dad. It seems preposterous to me from a screenwriting standpoint that they would introduce a deceased parent and not use time travel to save said parent. It’s the ultimate setup. Instead, with MTV attached, we got to keep things lighter and more appealing to the carefree fun of youth, and so the gang goes to Lolapalooza instead where they can watch rock bands. I think MTV came in and jettisoned the third act and the direction of the script, imposing the festival, and reminding people how music is essential to being young and free and alive. I can’t say whether it’s MTV’s influence or producer Michael Bay, but there’s a slew of product placement from start to finish as well. I have no proof of any of this but I think there’s something to my conspiracy theory.
If you needed any other example of how close Project Almanac would uphold to its own sci-fi rule system, a character asks a good question about how they can understand something, and David says, “I’ll tell you later.” Hey, you want to know something important, just wait, where it won’t be answered. The found footage aspect brings nothing to the film, is poorly integrated throughout, and just plain unnecessary. The plot is too underdeveloped and lacking ambition, using the miracle of time travel to party in such limited ways. The concluding half feels too low in stakes and obvious in conclusion. Time travel is all about the untold possibilities, and Project Almanac will ultimately fall in that territory, a somewhat amusing but mostly unfulfilled sci-fi film that should have gone back to the writing stage a few more times.
Nate’s Grade: C+