Project Almanac (United States, 2015)

January 30, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Project Almanac Poster

Call Project Almanac a "shaky-cam special", and it's a damn shame. The resultant production, both shaken and stirred, transforms a potentially entertaining pulp time travel story into a misbegotten exercise in frustration. It takes what might have been a moderately enthusiastic "thumbs up" and turns it into a "thumbs down." It makes one lament how enjoyable these 108 minutes might have been had the filmmakers not been misled into thinking that "found footage" was anything more than a tired gimmick whose effectiveness and welcome have been worn out for a long time. Maybe it will work better on home video where unrestrained camera movement is less likely to provoke nausea but it certainly doesn't work on a big screen.

If Chronicle asked the question of how a group of emotionally unready teenagers might cope with being granted superpowers, Project Almanac travels a similar road with respect to time travel. This isn't intended to be hard-core science fiction and doesn't come across as such. It's not overly interested in things like predestination paradoxes and falls short in the "think it through" mental exercises that accompany high-end time travel movies. But there's a kernel of truth in all of this because most teenagers, trapped in their high school bubble, would be tempted to use time travel to do things that older people might consider inconsequential or self-absorbed. And they probably have never heard of "the butterfly effect."

Project Almanac wonders what five high school kids might do if they came into possession of a time machine. They are David Raskin (Jonny Weston), the genius who takes his late father's research to the next level; David's hot blond sister, Christina (Ginny Gardner), who has a compulsion to film everything; David's geeky buddies, Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista); and Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), the girl of David's dreams. At first, when he realizes what he has, David wants to take things slowly - start with small experiments and build to bigger things, but his friends aren't patient. So it's not long before the quintet has made a successful jump 24 hours into the past. They quickly learn that time travel can be dangerous so they implement a rule: no solo jumping. For a while, the friends use time travel as a recreational device: a way to relive "good" days, re-do tests, take revenge on snooty girls who harass Christina, win the lottery, and pursue second chance romances. But, when David breaks the rule, they learn there's a dark side to all of this.

It's easy enough to have fun with the possibilities raised by Project Almanac without treating this as anything more than light, disposable entertainment. The characters are nicely drawn and there's something endearing about the uncertainty with which David approaches Jessie. The problem I have is the way first-time director Dean Israelite chooses to tell the story. I assume the reason this movie is presented from a first-person perspective is because of a desire to mimic Chronicle. That doesn't make it a good idea. In fact, video capture by a character in all these situations is more nonsensical than usual for this sort of movie. And, for the viewer, being forced to watch an entire movie shot with movement and jitter is enough to generate a headache. It's worse than a distraction; it's an abomination. And there's no reason for it. The first rule of the found footage/first person approach is that it should be used sparingly and only when there's a compelling reason to do so. Project Almanac offers no such reason. In fact, a strong case could be made that this would be a better movie had it been filmed using a steadycam or at least a tripod.

It's curious how popular the concept of time travel has become in recent years, whether in serious endeavors like Looper or Interstellar or less hardcore offerings like the belatedly popular Doctor Who or the mind-bending Predestination. Project Almanac is probably the least ambitious of the recent crop of productions but the style in which it's made makes this a dubious choice for an investment of the commodity it plays games with: time.

Project Almanac (United States, 2015)

Director: Dean Israelite
Cast: Jonny Weston, Ginny Gardner, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Sofia Black-D'Elia
Home Release Date: 2015-06-09
Screenplay: Andrew Stark, Jason Pagan
Cinematography: Matthew J. Lloyd
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2015-01-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1