In any and every circle of film critics, it has become a given cliché to feature the following words in a review of Project Almanac: It’s no Chronicle. So, let me feed in my two cents and agree. It’s no Chronicle. But the similarities can’t be avoided. That movie (released in February of 2012) breathed surprising life into the found-footage genre, serving as an unpredictably memorable supervillain origin story. After seeing Project Almanac, I realized that I had just watched a movie that didn’t have much in common at all with Josh Trank’s 2012 slam-dunk. So why, then, are the two being compared?
Well, primarily, it’s the found-footage gimmick. I don’t hate the style itself, but I am overwhelmingly frustrated with how often it is taken advantage of. Just google “found-footage movies” and you’ll see an endless list of crappy horror movies that have released in the past couple years alone. That being said, let me make a case for the art-form, as I feel too many critics are quick to attack the style instead of recognizing the good films that have been made using it. The Blair Witch Project is the obvious one, but a little too obvious. Try Chronicle (duh), As Above/So Below (shut up, I liked it), or Afflicted (a 2013 horror/adventure that hardly anyone talks about anymore).
Another reason the two are being compared is the high school-range cast of characters (this is, after all, an MTV Films production). Really though, that’s where the similarities end. Project Almanac is Back to the Future meets Looper (or you could substitute any other time travel-based movie in the place of either one of those films). I chose those two films because, well, characters actually mention them by title. It was a bit cringe-worthy, as it seemed that the screenwriters were trying to be more relevant than they needed to be. Project Almanac isn’t as good as either of those movies, let me be upfront about that, but it’s not that bad either.
Here’s the story. As the film opens, we’re quickly introduced to David (Jonny Weston), our main character who is the clichéd nerdy introvert that just has trouble approaching the girl. The girl, in this particular set of clichés, is Jesse (Sofia Black D’Elia), rocking a pair of sexy legs that the camera isn’t shy to capture. In these moments of the camera’s lustful gravitational pull, it becomes blatantly clear that Michael Bay is a producer, standing somewhere on the sidelines (maybe right behind the camera). Thankfully though, those moments are few, and when they do come, they never ooze sex appeal like the films that Bay himself directs. I’m willing to bet that Dean Israelite (the director) shut Bay down a few times during production. If so, good for him.
His movie doesn’t waste much of its lengthy running time on meaningless fluff, but instead kicks the plot into gear, which finds David trying to find out a way to earn money for M.I.T. after being accepted, but only given $5,000 in financial aid. After his sister finds their dead father’s old video camera, the two watch his seventh birthday, the last recorded event before his death. But things get strange when he sees something unbelievable in a mirror in the background of the living room on the tape. He sees himself, in present form, holding a video camera and a set of keys (it becomes a plot point later).
After gathering his close friends up (Alan and Quinn, plus his sister and Jesse) and showing them the tape, their kick-started investigation leads them to the abandoned basement (it’s always the abandoned basement), where they discover that their dad had designed blueprints for, you guessed it, a time machine. And just as Chronicle had it’s stretch of scenes that featured the teens using their newfound superpowers for fun and games, Project Almanac spends a good deal of time allowing the teens to use the time machine to go back in time and just do what they want. Also like Chronicle, this movie shows what consequences can occur when the source of power in question (in this case, time travel) is used irresponsibly.
Project Almanac is the first truly enjoyable movie of 2015 movie season, and it came just in time. I was really hoping that a good one could sneak its way into January (of course, there was Paddington and American Sniper, but those were both 2014 releases). It isn’t a great movie, nor is it anything particularly noteworthy or unforgettable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your bucks or time.
Much like Chronicle upon its original release, Project Almanac is filled with stars that aren’t all too popular. However, in the case of the 2012 film, two of the stars (Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan) went on to gain popularity through movies like The Place Beyond the Pines and Fruitvale Station. In the case of this movie, the stars really don’t offer much to go on in regard to serious potential. It isn’t that they’re necessarily bad, per say, but they aren’t that great either. The lead, Jonny Weston (he played the boyfriend in Tak3n), is good as the clichéd nerd who always fumbles over his words when the hot girl is in the room. I did like him, but the rest of cast was just mediocre.
But the performances aren’t what drive Project Almanac. Instead, it’s powered by its time travel story. I’m a bit of a sucker for time travel movies, so maybe I’m being a little biased, but I don’t necessarily think so. I’m not going to claim that this is a nearly perfect piece of cinematic brilliance that provokes as much thought as some of the great time travel movies. I’ll admit that the movie doesn’t come close to realizing its full potential. It doesn’t take full advantage of the ideas it sets forth with. Instead, in typical MTV/Michael Bay fashion, it dwells on the, “Oh, what I would give (go back in time and change) to just get the girl.” That being said, I didn’t mind it all that much. I went into the film expecting a crapfest of a January release, and I was pleasantly surprised.
As far as found-footage movies go, this movie has no excuse to exist in the genre. Not for one second did I buy that Christina (his sister) would carry a camera around and capture everything that is captured in the film. Pair that with the professionalism of each shot (I guess that’s a compliment, right?) and you have a mess of a narrative. Also, there was one particular shot in the film that brought me back to Chronicle in which the camera is lifted off the table and floats around, but it is quickly halted when Christina grabs it again. So, the found footage element just doesn’t cut it and the movie has no reason to use the method.
All that said, the bottom line is this: I liked it. It doesn’t redefine the found-footage genre in the way that Chronicle did, nor is it even deserving of the sometimes excellent but frequently nauseating art form-turned-gimmick. But it is consistently entertaining, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual content
Starring Jonny Weston, Sofia Black D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, and Josh Wallner
Written by Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman
Directed by Dean Israelite
Photo credits: ign.com, dorkshelf.com, imdb.com