Saturday, January 31, 2015

Project Almanac (2015)

I've always been a sucker for time travel movies. The idea of seeing the future, visiting the past, and altering the present have always fascinated me. And as I've espoused upon in the past, I often find myself drawn to found footage movies as well, even though a lot of them fail to rise above mediocrity and the style has long worn out its welcome. The idea of both time travel and found footage being fused together is what drew me to the newly-released flick Project Almanac. The reviews have been relatively "meh" so far, but I figured I'd check it out anyway. And while I did think the movie was fun enough for what it was, that "meh" feeling was actually pretty accurate.

Genius high school student David Raskin (Jonny Weston) has just been accepted into MIT, but is devastated to learn that the scholarship he earned will only cover a small fraction of his tuition. While rummaging through the attic, he discovers some junk belonging to his father, an inventor who passed away ten years earlier. David hopes that his father's things can push him in the right direction in finding some other means of paying for his education. But what he finds, however, will change his life far more dramatically alter his life than four years of study at MIT ever could. Among his father's junk is a camcorder with a tape of David's seventh birthday party and the last time he and his sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) saw their father alive. When they watch the video, though, they're surprised to see a present-day David briefly walking through the background.

David shows the video to his friends Adam (Allen Evagngelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), who are equally as blown away. They venture into his father's workshop in the basement looking for clues, when they discover a secret hatch containing blueprints for a time machine. That, combined with David's appearance in the video, inspires them to start building it out of household objects and stolen school supplies. Their initial experiments don't go so well, but through trial and error begin to see that the machine has the potential to work.

Pretty classmate Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia) gets roped into the whole thing after stumbling upon one of their test runs with the time machine, helping continue their experiments that culminate with the whole group going back in time to the previous day. Bolstered by their success, they start having a little fun with it. They use it to pass tests they'd previously flunked, get revenge on bullies, give themselves winning lottery numbers. They even go back to Lollapalooza with souvenir VIP passes they bought on eBay three months after the fact. But when David misses a chance for romance with Jessie at Lollapalooza, his secret decision to rectify his mistake only ends up causing a ripple effect that does more harm to the present than good. His attempts to go back and fix those problems instigate even more catastrophic consequences, leaving David with an ever-growing mountain of problems that threaten to ruin everything he holds dear.

While I did enjoy Project Almanac for the most part thanks to its energetic pace, I felt it left something to be desired. I've heard it described as a hybrid of Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect, but the movie is nowhere near as strong as either of those. The problem is that it largely feels unfocused, as if it knows what it wants to do but is unsure of how to get there and gets distracted along the way. It just struggles along, hitting its head against a proverbial brick wall for an hour and a half before realizing it could have just walked around that wall.

Director Dean Israelite does a decent job of holding the movie together and keeps it moving fast and lively, but I thought the whole "found footage" style hindered him more than it helped. Not only does the shaky camerawork get old really fast, but there's no real reason why it has to be done that way anyway. Israelite could have made Project Almanac with traditional cinematography, and the movie probably could have been better off for it. The found footage aspect adds literally nothing to the movie outside of the occasional bits where the cast finds cameras that have sent back and fourth through time.

But then again, the script isn't really worth much either. I noted earlier that the movie felt unfocused, and it's mostly due to the script. Writers Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman don't really get to the serious drama, the consequences of the cast's actions, until there's roughly just twenty minutes left in the movie. Things don't start spiraling out of control until the movie's almost over, which doesn't really give it enough time to have any sort of serious impact with the audience.

That Butterfly Effect comparison I made earlier doesn't really fit if the consequences don't hit hard. There are little things ― the high school's basketball team goes from success to failure after the star player breaks his leg; the school bully is suddenly and without explanation everyone's best friend ― that we see are different. But then there's a plane crash and one of the main characters ends up in a coma after an accident. A plane crash and a comatose main character seem like they should be a big deal, right? But they never have the emotional impact that they should have. Pagan and Deutschman spend some time telling us what's happening rather than showing us, robbing the movie of any potential tension that could have been drawn from the ripples caused by their excursions into the past. Why should I care about what's happening if the movie itself doesn't care either?

To the movie's credit, I thought the cast was strong despite the characters being rather shallowly written. While Ginny Gardner is stuck in the role of "found footage camera operator" and is thus given next to nothing to do (rendering her a near-complete non-factor in the process), Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner provide some amusing comic relief. I also thought Sofia Black-D'Elia was cute and charming, and had a fun chemistry with Jonny Weston. Weston, however, is the standout player. He gets to do the lion's share of the acting, and I thought his work was great. I'd have liked to have seen just what Weston could have done had the whole thing been fleshed out better. His excitement at the creation of the time machine and growing despair at his failures is very believable, and in a stronger movie, I think he could have gotten some attention.

That actually sums up Project Almanac fairly well. There are some parts I genuinely enjoyed, but they'd have been so much better had the rest of the movie been stronger. The movie has a fun energy and some decent acting, along with an interesting premise. It only does so much with what it has, though. Combine that with its weak script and unnecessary usage of found footage, and you have a movie that is probably only good as a mild diversion if anything. The DVD release in a few months could make for a decent watch on a boring afternoon, but it's probably not worth the $7.50 to see it theatrically. Just wait for it to pop up on DVD or on-demand, and you might enjoy it.

And risks or no risks, I still want to own my own time machine. That'd be awesome.

Final Rating: **½