DISCLAIMER BEFORE WE BEGIN
I hate found-footage. I hate it. It was sort of new and innovative when The Blair Witch Project did it, and it became a lot more impressive with Cloverfield, but at this point it’s just a way for people to make low-budget movies not look so low-budget. Special effects can be put anywhere now, so if the camera’s moving, they’ll look more realistic, right? My major problem with the medium is this: nobody is so good at filming themselves that they’d be able to get all the necessary angles and coverage, and yet so bad at filming themselves that they can’t hold the camera steady for more than two seconds at a time. People know how to use cameras nowadays. Teenagers grew up using cameras; they know how to film things. Shaky cam does not make it seem realer, it makes it seem faker. I do not enjoy watching found-footage and I think almost categorically, a movie would be better without it.
END OF DISCLAIMER
Teen movies are generally hampered for me by the fact that, well, they’re aimed at teens and I am no longer one. I wasn’t really much of one when I actually was a teenager, but that’s beside the point. Generally, part of my issue with these teen genre films, especially ones in the horror or science fiction realm, is that one or more of the kids are not fun to spend time with. They’re usually there to either be the sacrificial lamb or the antagonist or whatever. Very rarely are all the characters overall good people. This already made Project Almanac an anomaly, but couple with that a science fiction story that is actually more or less about science and the possible dangers of misused technology and you get a movie that’s surprisingly a lot of fun.
Directed by Dean Israelite, a newcomer who is apparently the cousin of Jonathan Liebesman, which explains the Platinum Dunes production of the movie, Project Almanac is a time travel movie for teenagers, kind of like what Primer was for those born in the late ’90s. Though many other time travel movies get name-checked or even shown on screen (like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Looper), it at least nominally tries to be about actual scientists and scientific concepts, even if they are sort of glossed over and things are sped up for the purposes of simplifying things for the audience, who will predominantly be in high school.
We begin with David (Jonny Weston), a high school genius attempting to get into MIT with his presentation of a drone that is controlled by hand movements through cell phone WiFi. This is being filmed with the help of his sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) and his two best friends Adam (Allen Evangelista), who is very smart himself, and Quinn (Sam Lerner), who is less so but is still a good guy. After he fails to get a scholarship, David is in the dumps until he and his sister find their father’s old video camera. It contains footage of David’s seventh birthday party, ten years prior, which was the last day their father was alive before dying in a car accident. While viewing the footage, they see what appears to be David as he is today in the mirror in the background. A-whaaat?
After going into the basement, where his father kept all his research, David and his friends find blueprints for some project called “Almanac” which is apparently a time machine. They build it and it seems to work in some fashion, but they need more power than they have so they use the battery from a hybrid vehicle owned by Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), the girl David has had a crush on forever. Eventually, they’re able to send things back in time, and then, of course, they send themselves back in time to try to change things for the better in their lives. They set down ground rules for themselves, but soon something happens that forces David to venture off alone, and deal with the consequences of too much time traveling.
I applaud the film for its concept and the fact that, for most of the proceedings, it holds true to its own internal logic, even if that logic doesn’t really follow proper scientific anything. Look, it’s a movie, and I get it. It’s a lot more accurate than it had any reason to try to be. As alluded to earlier, it’s also very refreshing to see a movie with a group of young friends who are smart, who are mostly responsible, who care about each other, and who are primarily interested in furthering their academic careers. Granted, they’re all way smarter than any high schooler probably is, but the kid got into MIT; he probably could figure out how to build an old-timey time machine.
While most of the set-up is interesting and the characters are fun, the plot does break down a bit toward the end as we get geared up for the finale. David’s constant traveling through time changes things in many unforeseen ways — some of the things are only subtly hinted at in the background and some are, obviously, much bigger deals. I like that the movie doesn’t feel the need to be like “Look at how different everything is” and just presents it as reality. Still, it seems pretty unlikely that so many cataclysmically bad things would happen to this one group, so an explanation as to why or if there was some kind of force acting on them specifically because of time travel might have helped. There’s also no rhyme or reason about whether traveling in time means there’s tons of multiple thems out there as well. They show us what happens when two meet, but not what happens to all the multiples once the “prime” ones return to the present. If that makes any sense at all.
Aside from the found-footage nature, which I’ve already told you I find tiresome and wholly unrealistic, Project Almanac is a lot more fun and a lot better constructed narratively than it has any reason to be. It’s not revolutionary, but it is slightly refreshing in a lot of ways and it expects its audience to keep up.