The Found Footage genre has grown past the point of being an annoying trend and is now used as a vehicle to trot out other older genres again cheaply. That’s not necessarily good or bad, and certainly there have been and will continue to be good examples of the form. ‘Project Almanac’ sadly isn’t one of those. It feels more like a pitch than an actual movie. “Let’s do ‘Chronicle‘ but with time travel,” said someone at Paramount a year or so ago. While the results may not be as bad as that sounds, this is not exactly a great movie either.
As is the way in Found Footage yarns, we start out by getting introduced to a collection of teenage character types before things get strange. David (Jonny Weston) is apparently an ostracized high school geek, because he wears glasses. He has a couple of buddies (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) who have fun by building stuff and talking about girls. He also has a sister (Ginny Gardner), but she’s really just there to hold the camera and sort of be a love interest. There’s also another girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia) who David has a crush on, and that’s the entire extent of her character.
Anyhoo, one day David and his sister find an old videotape of one of his childhood birthday parties, and discover an image of teenage David in the background. They aren’t quite sure what it means until David and his buds find a bunch of equipment and blueprints for a time machine in the basement. See where this is going? They obviously decide to try it and have fun until they make a mistake. Then all that Butterfly Effect stuff happens. You know, the usual.
Now, the movie is not without some entertainment value. When the teens start experimenting with time travel, they get into some very amusing ‘Groundhog Day’ and wish fulfillment scenarios that milk the potential of the concept well. First time director Dean Israelite has a certain knack for staging unexpected sci-fi spectacle with charm. He’s also pretty clever at arranging his time travel scenarios and paradoxes, knows how to hit the audience with a dramatic gearshift, and inserts plenty of winks to time travel movies of the past. Weston, Evangelista and Lerner are all also quite natural actors with undeniable chemistry together. The movie absolutely has a number of sequences that are just as fun as one would hope from an ideal version of the premise. Unfortunately, they pretty much all come in the film’s second act. The rest doesn’t work so well.
Oh yes, the film has many problems, like female characters who are only there to jiggle and serve as prizes for the dudes, or the ludicrous final 20 minutes that are filled with plot holes. But most of all, the movie sags simply because it’s so damn redundant. Not only can you snidely describe the story as ‘Chronicle’ meets ‘Primer’, there are times when it feels like the producers just shuffled random scenes from those two movies together like a deck of cards and called it a screenplay.
Obviously, any genre movie comes with expected beats, tropes and conventions that have to be met. That’s not the problem. The problem is that ‘Project Almanac’ rarely if ever toys with those repetitive elements. It just trots them out again and hopes that a little self-referential humor and the Found Footage aesthetic will cover up all the Xeroxing. It doesn’t. There might be a chunk of fun in the middle as the filmmakers gleefully toy with the idea of teenagers using time travel to their advantage, but the opening act and conclusion rely so heavily on borrowed material that the movie can’t help feeling tedious.
Admittedly, the teen target audience likely hasn’t seen all the movies being knocked off here. They might go for it, and that’s fine. It’s just too bad that anyone who bothers to seek out some those older, better films will undoubtedly end up feeling duped by this one.