'Project Almanac' replicates the 'Chronicle' formula with passable, but underwhelming, results
Project Almanac Paramount Pictures
Director: Dean Israelite
Screenplay: Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan
Starring: Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker and Gary Weeks
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 46 minutes
January 30, 2015
(out of four)
It seems like Project Almanac wants to embrace the chaos of its time-travel premise - to toy with the cause-and-effect ramifications, tease the inherent paradoxes, even throw the temporal stability of its characters out of whack - but it never quite shows the ability to do so. As with pretty much every other similarly themed movie (especially those, like this one, whose time-machine purveyors are wide-eyed innocents), the time-travel experiments begin uneventfully enough, but eventually descend into disorder and confusion that only the protagonist can solve or undo.
But the film - written by Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan and directed by Dean Israelite in his feature debut - only ever gets halfway with its equation. It shows how its characters' actions in the past affect the present in ways they didn't anticipate or don't want, and yet almost nothing ever feels like it's actually out of control - or in any danger of getting that way. Almost everything is a quick fix - the question is never whether something can be adjusted, but whether the characters think it's worth the sacrifice. (More on that later.)
But here is where the film badly miscalculates (or misunderstands) itself. The more time it spends adjusting and re-adjusting its timeline, the less complicated it gets, and the closer it gets to being ostensibly normal. And yet the script continues to behave as if things are increasingly spinning out of control.
To sum up: Our time travelers are a group of five high-schoolers, led by science geek and MIT acceptee David (Jonny Weston). After a few months of researching and tinkering with their discovery (a top-secret holdover from David's dad that they accidentally discover hidden underneath the floor of his basement), they take it out for a spin, and eventually get more and more ambitious with what they want to do with it. They go back a day to get the winning Powerball numbers. They go back another day to make sure one of them aces a once-flunked test. They go back a few months to spend a day at Lollapalooza.
But they discover that their actions, naturally, have had an unintended ripple effect, and they've now returned to a present day that is moderately different from the one they remember. A butterfly flaps its wings and the star of the basketball team breaks his leg. But David and friends (or, increasingly, David by himself) are always able to pinpoint the one thing that caused a negative outcome (the basketball team missing the playoffs) or unexpected tragedy (a plane crash that kills 70) and prevent it from happening. At a certain point, they've gotten things right about back to normal, the only thing left to fix being something that happened one day earlier. And yet at this point, Israelite gives us a whole sequence of David frantically diagramming the entire timeline from the last several months, as if any of the previous events (which, again, have been fixed and/or put back in order) have any relevance. All David has to do at this point is go back one day and prevent one thing from happening - something he's been easily able to do for most of the rest of the film.
The movie is basically just trying to pretend things are complicated and hoping we won't notice otherwise. But that's the problem - the movie does such a clean and efficient job cleaning up all of its messes that, after awhile, it has no real mess to clean up. It makes things too easy on itself, and on its characters, and that ends up undermining its intentions in the final act.
There's no hard-and-fast logic to time-travel movies - each one has its own rules governing the concept. In this case, Project Almanac accepts a large degree of course correction, the only temporal alterations being individual events that cause individual changes. When the final half-hour rolls around, it becomes clear the film is aiming for more narrative chaos, but it simply hasn't built anything up to support that. If, instead, each time a character went back in time to fix something he (or she) ended up setting in motion an array of increasingly uncontrollable consequences, that would be one thing. That's a difficult thing to pull off, but the reward would be enormous. Instead, Israelite and his writers play it safe, but in doing so kill their chances for much of a payoff.
Another way to consider the film's approach to time-travel would be the way in which it becomes - or at least tries to become - more about how the characters deal with the moral/ethical implications of their time-travel excursions, balancing their youthful desires with the very real repercussions their actions have inadvertently caused. That would be pretty interesting - a philosophical approach to the story rather than a scientific or logistical one - but Project Almanac doesn't really follow through on that, either.
Instead, it gets kind of halfway with both angles - it presents enough of a cause-and-effect conundrum to generate a plot, and enough of a moral/emotional conflict to give the characters something to chew on once things are in motion. But neither angle fully lands.
The movie succeeds up to a point in large part because of the spiritedness of its teenage cast (no adults have more than a few lines), particularly Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista as David's two best friends, Quinn and Adam (respectively). David's seemingly out-of-his-league love interest, Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), has more to do as a character than a lot of love interests in movies about (and aimed at) teenage boys. Although the other girl in the group, David's sister Christina (Virginia Gardner), is mostly stuck holding the camera for the duration of the film while Adam crushes on her.
Almanac is also one of the more conspicuous recent examples of a movie directly piggybacking another. This is basically the time-travel version of Chronicle, right down to its found-footage approach and its narrative about a group of teenage boys who discover something impossible. It's not such a bad imitation, as these things go, but it certainly does little to sway those of us (I include myself) who think the technique is almost always superfluous. (The film justifies it by having a character insist, early on, that they have to film everything, which works until those moments when characters are committing serious crimes that they certainly wouldn't want on camera, or are on the run or in serious danger and would have neither the time nor the inclination to keep carrying a camera around.)
But at the same time, the camerawork doesn't usually get in the way, either. Nothing about the movie is especially bad, but as a whole it doesn't have nearly the kind of fearlessness required to hit its ambitious target.