Friday, January 30, 2015

'Project Almanac' Movie Review: A Fun And Engaging, If Cliche, Time Travel Flick

Expectations have not been high for Dean Israelite’s feature directorial debut, Project Almanac. The Michael Bay-produced, teen-centric, found footage time travel film, formerly titled Welcome to Yesterday, has been pushed back and delayed multiple times, ultimately dropped at the tail end of January, and beginning late last week there was even rapid scramble to excise a two-second clip from the movie and the promotional material—it featured footage of a real life plane crash, which incensed families of the casualties. The deck is certainly stacked against this one, but despite all of that, as well as being totally predictable, Project Almanac is actually a decent amount of fun.

From word one, you know precisely where this movie is going. It doesn’t break any new ground, not even remotely, but what makes Project Almanac endearing is the self-awareness and earnestness of the characters. These are pop culture obsessed kids who watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a kind of time travel research and take their cues about what is and isn’t possible from Looper. And at a structural level, the plot actually plays out like a simplified version of Primer.

David Raskin (Johnny Westin) is way smart. You get that from the opening scene where he shows off a fancy pair of gloves he’s designed to control a flying drone with exquisite precision. This is an attempt to get into MIT, which he does, but misses out on the fellowship he needs to make this financially possible. In a last ditch effort, he scrounges through his dead father’s things—daddy was a scientist, an inventor of sorts—looking for anything that will give him a leg up. When he and his sister, Chris (Virginia Gardener), discover an old video camera, they find something shocking. In footage of David’s seventh birthday party, the last thing their father filmed, they see David, present day David, in the background. This leads to the discovery that dear old dad built the components of a time machine.

Along with their equally nerdy friends, Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), they piece together the device, test it, and tinker around with the timeline. It’s this period, where they fidget with the design and scrape together the parts, that the movie is both the most fun and will test your suspension of disbelief the most. Sure, these kids are wicked smart, but they’re also in high school, and there are a few substantial leaps that are bound to stretch your credulity. But for the most part, the chemistry the characters have carries you through. They’re just as psyched as you would be to find a time machine as you would be, and their enthusiasm is infectious, and you legitimately form a bond with them, even though this is all very trite and silly.

Of course, they use their new toy for the impetuous trifles of youth. They get redo on a big test in one Groundhog Day-esque sequence, Chris gets a touch of vengeance against he mean girl who bullies her (this is a weird, relatively unexplored aside), and of course they win the lottery, though not as much as they intended, due to some poor penmanship, among other funny gags. And of course there’s a hot girl, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who David pines after who can see the real him. It’s goofy and you see every beat coming a mile off, but somehow it still works well enough that you can get past the obvious flaws.

As you imagine, this honeymoon period wears off, and Project Almanac makes a drastic tonal turn as their dalliances in the past start to have unanticipated, catastrophic consequences in the present. The fun-and-games portion of the program goes on for so long—too long, it could stand to be trimmed down—that by the time things need to get serious, the shift is so sudden that it’s jarring. This is also where the level of fun takes a sharp nosedive. David takes it upon himself to fix everything, and as you imagine, the situation continues to spiral out of control towards an obvious conclusion. You would like to see the sense of danger and impending doom built up a bit more, lurking at the periphery through the earlier stages of the movie, but it arrives out of nowhere.

If you’re wary of the found footage conceit, Israelite and company accept the limitations of the format and do their best to keep it from being a distraction. They know, as well as you do, that there are going to be scenes that no one has any business filming, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek running joke where characters look at the camera and remark, “Really, you’re filming this?” While that could get obnoxious, the self-awareness keeps it light. Instead of sticking to the tropes of the genre, the film employs things like a soundtrack, slow motion, and more traditional cinematic techniques to keep the baser impulses at bay. And their attempts, while not perfect, are enough to keep many of the usual problems from, well, becoming a problem.

Project Almanac is far from perfect, and while you never quite shake a sense of déjà vu while you watch, it’s goofy and endearing enough to be worth your time. You’ll groan at some of the choices of the young characters, but they groan right along with you and then move on. There are clever moments, and heart to spare, and despite the predictable nature, this is more than enough to add up to a decently entertaining movie. [Grade: B-]

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