Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Project Almanac (2015)

Project Almanac (2015) is a slick variation of Primer (2004) -- by way of Chronicle (2012) -- with a little of I’ll Follow You Down (2013) tossed in for good measure. 

Granted, that description makes the movie sound insipid. But Project Almanac -- from the King of Dumb Movies himself, producer Michael Bay -- is actually engaging, riveting and even fun.

I’m as surprised to write that as you are to read it.

Project Almanac engages not merely on the basis of its structural technique -- the found footage approach, which fosters immediacy and urgency -- but, surprisingly, through an excavation of its main character, and a really great visual story hook.

Project Almanac also moves so fast at times that you don’t stop to question the details too much…and that is probably a good thing. Why?  Well, the material raises some questions it doesn’t answer, and glosses over an important technicality in one significant time travel scene.

Similarly, some movie fans my age may decry Project Almanac’s brand of “young adult” approach to the time travel/found-footage material (hence the Chronicle comparison…) yet they too play into the film’s surprisingly adept exploration of its central character, David Raskin (Jonny Weston). A lot of what goes wrong in the film occurs because of his youth and inexperience.

In short, the movie gets away with a lot, in my opinion, because it follows callow, inexperienced kids who -- while incredibly smart about time travel -- are none-too-clever about understanding their own individual foibles. I found that notion appealing, and also appreciated all of Project Almanac’s call-backs to time travel (and teen sci-fi…) movies of the past.

My advice is to go in to your viewing of Project Almanac not expecting too much…and then just let yourself be carried away by the story and the characters.  You may find, like I did, that Project Almanac actually does a bit more than just pass the time.

“So you’re telling me Dad left a time machine in the basement?”

Brilliant high-school student David Raskin (Jonny Weston) gets into M.I.T. but can’t afford a scholarship, meaning that he is forty-thousand dollars short on the tuition.  His devoted mother plans to sell the family house to pay for his schooling.

On a trip to the attic to look through some of his dead father’s old scientific equipment, David discovers a video camera and footage of his seventh birthday party.  He is shocked to discover footage of himself -- at his current age -- in the material taped at the event.

What this means, David is quick to realize, is that he has time traveled to his own past, to his own history.

With his sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) taping everything, and his genius friends, Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Alan Evangelista) involved too, David goes on a quest to learn more. In the basement, in his father’s old workshop, he discovers a “temporal relocation prototype.”

To power it, however, David ends up using the car battery of a high-school girl he has a crush on, Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black D’Elia). She also wants in on the experiment, and is disappointed that, apparently, the teens can only time travel three weeks into the past.

The group successfully performs a first time-travel experiment, and David quickly realizes that rules must be established so as not to sow chaos. 

Accordingly, he decides that every trip will be filmed (so the team can review footage and remember exactly what changes were made), that no one will jump alone, and that time travel must remain a secret.

Before long, however, all the rules get thrown out the window, even by David himself, and constant time travel begins to unravel the tapestry of his reality.

“You guys film everything, huh?”

Thirty years ago, in 1985, Hollywood gave us the Year of the Sci-Fi Teen. 

Movie audiences were treated to such genre films as Back to the Future (1985), Explorers (1985), My Science Project (1985), Real Genius (1985) and Weird Science (1985). Those films featured ungainly, awkward teens dealing with time warps, time travel, lasers, and other elements of the genre, as well as the perils of day-to-day adolescence.

The opening acts of Project Almanac capture well a kind of retro-Real Genius vibe, with smart teens working together, ribbing each other, and fired up about the possibility of discoveries as yet unmade. 

The teens deal with the changes in their lives, growing up, at the same time they deal with sci-fi “changes” in reality.  The prospect of kissing a girl for the first time is thus just as terrifying and exciting as is breaching the time barrier.

Project Almanac name-checks Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1988) and Doctor Who (2005 - ) for starters, in another fashion reminding us that the film’s director, Dean Israelite, knows and honors the genre.  Although the film is populated by some insanely attractive teens, Israelite also lovingly devotes the frame, oft-times, to the making of the movie’s garage time machine.  Hence my comparison to Primer (2004) in the introduction.  As is the case in that brilliant low-budget film, there is not so much thought as to why the time machine is being made as the fact that it can be made at all.

Project Almanac draws the viewer in through its organizing principle: the ever-present video footage, meant to chronicle David’s scholarship entry at M.I.T., as well as the various excursions through time.  As I’ve written before, the found-footage or first-person camera approach can -- when handled well -- offer a decent creative trade off.  What we lose in terms of film grammar and traditional formality, we gain in terms of immediacy and urgency.  The best films of this type feel like they are happening to us, and Project Almanac would certainly qualify.  You feel the anticipation, the excitement, and thrill of the teens as they broach their new frontier.

Alas, there is at least one instance in the film when the rules of found-footage are broken, and I found it a little disturbing to see the format violated.  Filmmakers should be more careful to adhere to the rules of the format they choose.  More and more found-footage films of late have been breaking the format in this fashion.  It happened in V/H/S Viral (2014), and The Pyramid (2014) too, to name just two other films.

Beyond the “entrance point” provided by found-footage techniques, Project Almanac features a great opening hook.  David randomly looks at his 7th grade birthday footage and sees a figure move through the background, in a mirror.  Closer analysis reveals that the figure is him; seventeen year-old him, to be precise. 

How did he get there?  Why did he go there?

If the time machine can only transport travelers twenty-one days into the past, how can he be there, ten years in the past?

Again, the canny imagery -- the sight of a hectic figure, darting around anxiously in the reflection from a mirror -- captures the story’s nature well.  There’s a desperation in the movements of that time traveler, and Project Almanac travels its entire running time explaining that desperation. The image in the mirror works symbolically too.  The main character, David, is constantly contending with who he is supposed to be, who he can be. The image in the mirror is him and not him, or, as we find out, a restoration of his identity.

Project Almanac really works effectively, I believe, because of the David Raskin character, and Jonny Weston’s performance. This is a guy who can get into M.I.T. without half-trying, and who can assemble a time machine in hours from what look like exceedingly complex directions. Yet he is inexperienced in life and with relationships.  Significantly, he terms the “temporal relocation prototype” a “second chance machine” at one point, and that’s precisely how he uses it, unfortunately. 

David takes the scientific method -- trial and error -- into his efforts to win the love of Jessie, and that’s his downfall.  He has no idea how other people, especially those of the opposite sex, really work.  The film is thus about the idea that time travel may be a perfectly orderly, perfectly rational and safe enterprise, yet the introduction of the human factor into time travel screws the pooch. If David went back in time as an impartial observer, or as a person not seeking attachment (and love), everything would be fine, perhaps.

That’s not how he travels through time, however, and the results are catastrophic.

It’s not exactly an algebraic equation, but it is intriguing to consider how Project Almanac rivets the attention.  Found-footage, first person camera-work + high-concept (evidence of time travel, but not the existence, yet of time travel, through the visual hook of David in the mirror at his seventh birthday) + good characterization = viewer engagement.  It’s a deft approach, and for the most part, it worked for me.

On the other hand, even at its breakneck speed, Project Almanac did give me pause a few times. 

For instance, some of the early time travel journeys in the film involve “score settling” with teachers and bullies.  The whole group (five teens) go back in time on each jump, go to a specific place, and re-write the past. 

To do so, we see how they must sideline their previous selves (so as not to create a paradox, or at the very least, a very embarrassing situation).  But importantly, they are not successful on their first attempt to rewrite time. This means the group has to go back again, to the same time and same place. But now the timeline involves two previous iterations of themselves, right? So wouldn’t the teens now have to contend with a past featuring two previous incarnations? 

That’s ten people or so to avoid, all focused around one classroom. Kind of tough to navigate, no?

Similarly, in the scene at a music festival, David uses his “second chance” machine to go back and improve an intimate moment with Jesse.  How does he sideline his previous self?  We don’t see how he accomplishes this feat, even though we have seen just such a scene in the high school, with Chris sidelining one iteration of Quinn, so that another one can slip in and ace a Chemistry final. 

So how does Jesse accomplish sidelining his other self?  He can’t just un-write the previous time line, because that is the time line that establishes Jesse’s location at the music festival to begin with.

When you boil it down, my problem with Project Almanac is that it is not consistent.  One time, the original person in the about-to-be-altered time-line must be decoyed away, and one time, there is no mention of doing that at all.

Together, it doesn’t add up.

Other questions are also left unanswered. Like how, exactly, did David’s father die?  And why was he working on a time machine in his basement? 

And if he was working on a time machine for the government (as the film seems to imply), why did the government never come looking for the temporal relocation prototype?

Certainly security safeguards would have been in place, regarding the device, lest it fall into the wrong hands.

These oversights, in some way preclude Project Almanac from being a great science fiction film, but the film’s exploration of David’s emotional dilemma make it worthwhile, even if all the narrative threads don’t tie together perfectly.  

Why?  This is a good teen movie that speaks adequately in terms of genre tropes and ideas. I liked following David’s story. His character flaws -- he can fix a time machine but not a relationship -- make for some fun moments in the film.

So if -- like me -- you remember 1985 and the teen sci-fi movies of that year fondly, you may want to check out Project Almanac. Take out all the bells and whistles, and this is a story of how human relationships can also prove themselves "second chance machines."

1 comment:

  1. Good review, John. I just watched this today and you're spot-on. To help out, I recall David telling Jessie that his father died in a car crash.