Tom wants to travel back in time and stop the found-footage genre from taking off.
Let’s get this out of the way right at the outset: Found-footage film making has become blight on humanity and it must be stopped. I realize how ‘get off my lawn’ and curmudgeonly this sounds, but what other choice am I left with when faced with something like Project Almanac, a movie whose adherence to the basic tenets of found footage (shake the camera on a near constant basis and constantly create flimsy justification as to why people would continuously choose to hold them) help torpedo what is a well-worn yet still cinematically viable premise.
The story is simple enough – MIT hopeful David Raskin (Jonny Weston) and his rag-tag group of nerdy-but-not-too-nerdy friends (along with his sister and her omnipresent camera and a popular/attractive classmate) come across video footage of his high school self in the background of a video taken during his seventh birthday party, which also happens to be the day his scientist father died in a car wreck. This leads them to discover blueprints and the essential elements to create a time machine in his father’s old workspace. What begins as simple enough wish fulfillment (go back a day and win the lottery, get revenge on a school bully, ace the presentation you previously flunked) quickly spirals out of control as unforeseen consequences begin to stack atop one another and David must try and put a stop to the cause of their butterfly effects.
The cast is pleasant enough in a melodrama/college brochure cover kind of fashion. Weston lays a little too heavily on the nerdy tics playbook (stutters and missteps in conversation, constant ‘aw shucks’ fidgeting) and the rest of his castmates live up to that sort of performative white noise that washes over the picture. But they’re stranded in a movie that takes far too long to get the gears of its plot in motion – we all know it’s a movie about a time machine, and we know they’re going to travel through time utilizing this machine, so we don’t need 30 minutes of building montages and expository dialogue with nauseating shaky-cam building up to that moment. And we don’t need this movie to be found footage – accepting that certain genres or types of stories lend themselves to the found footage style (horror being the best example), this time travel story just isn’t. Nothing is gained by making the film this way – it only serves to allow the film the excuse to flow inconsistently and eschew pleasant shot composition.
Once the movie’s plot actually begins to assert itself and our lead characters begin doubling back on their own timelines in an attempt to rectify the accidental changes they’ve wrought, Project Almanac actually begins to gain a little bit of momentum. And some of the effects chosen to visualize their time travel (including a twitchy glitch whenever a character accidentally interacts with their past selves) are visually interesting, but those moments of inspiration are buried under layers of unnecessary artifice and fealty to a conceit that simply doesn’t serve the story being told. Time travel movies work best when there’s a clockwork precision to the plotting that allows the audience an opportunity to clearly follow the plot threads as the story’s pieces all come together by film’s end. That isn’t always the case – Primer is a confounding indie time travel movie, but you’re utterly absorbed by the sense the filmmaker and all of its characters know exactly what they’re talking about, and I can’t extend that same courtesy to director Dean Israelite’s work here. And while I could never fully hate a movie with the line of dialogue “going to Lollapalooza was a mistake!” (delivered dramatically, mind you), I still wish I could hop back to the previous day and convince myself to spend those two hours more constructively.