Overview: A group of friends build a time machine, and use it for their personal gain until they realize their actions have unforeseen consequences. Paramount Pictures; 2015; Rated PG-13; 106 minutes
Haven’t We Been Here Before?: Dean Israelite’s found-footage film certainly doesn’t do anything new for the time travel subgenre, but the film has an awareness of that fact. The characters and plot operate under the expectation that its audience is overly familiar with the use of time travel tropes in pop culture and the film makes it a point to directly reference these movies (The Terminator, Bill & Ted’s, Looper, Timecop). On the positive side of things, the metatexual references allow for the film to knowingly wink at the audience, setting them up to have their expectations played with, much in the way Wes Craven did with Scream. The set-up is great, and briskly paced, but the play on expectations never comes, and instead of using the built-in-audience awareness to create new twists, Israelite simply chooses to tell the time-travel story we expected. The result is a movie that feels almost entirely like entertaining set-up, leaving me desperately wanting to see some new angle unveiled.
Time Bandits: The most enjoyable aspect of the movie comes from its five charismatic lead actors who imbue the movie with a sense of fun and realism. If Michael Bay’s production credit and MTV’s financial backing weren’t already enough of an indicator, Project Almanac is very much a high-school movie and most of the comedy and drama stems from that realm of thinking. While the high-school clichés and immaturity are in abundance, the cast really sells it, and other than a few awkwardly scripted lines and pop culture references, they feel like honest portraits of suburban American teens. If the time-travel elements were stripped, we’d still be left with a rather compelling high-school comedy. But because time-travel is very much in play, the actors aren’t given much to do in terms of selling the gravity of the consequences they unleash. The film spends too little time exploring the mess they create and undersells the danger, instead spending a good portion of its runtime on hijinks (some admittedly funny ones) and a narrative catalyst at music fest Lollapalooza that ventures into the realm of over-indulgent.
Partial Recall: Some of the film’s best moments come from the early scenes of trial and error of actually getting the time machine to work. It’s in these instances where the film shows some inclination towards originality and it is where the found footage aspect is most successful. While found footage has its share of detractors, Israelite should be commended for making the camera have plot significance. Expectedly, there are many moments that make you wonder why characters are still recording, but I think after so many found footage films that complaint should be retired and accepted as an inherent flaw of the presentation. Project Almanac is amusing, but it lacks the gravity, emotional impact, and ambition to stand with modern found-footage classics like Chronicle. With all the truly awful films that populate the winter months, Project Almanac is a fine break from the sludge, but I can’t promise you’ll remember it later.