AKA Primer For Dummies.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Project Almanac is the debut feature of director Dean Israelite, although it’s presumably more well known for having a certain producer attached to it. Regardless of the fact that a producer’s role can be quite vague, particularly ‘executive producers’, whose influence is often disputed by directors and writers alike (here’s looking at you, Raymond Chow). Nevertheless, the name “Michael Bay” being anywhere near the film’s poster will either repel audiences like a fart in a lift, or draw in punters on mass, given how his features are often a license for studios to print money. If only the film’s biggest problem was simply two small words printed on the poster. Alas, it is far more severe than that.
The plot revolves around a group of clever teenagers and school chums: Sam Lerner (Quinn), Allen Evangelista (Adam), Jonny Weston (as David, the closest thing the film has to a lead actor) and Virginia Gardner (David’s sister Christina and frequent camera-person). They all work together to help David get enough money together to afford to get into MIT. Unfortunately, $40,000 isn’t easy to come by unless your widowed mother decides to sell her enormous house and downsize, or apparently if you’re the son of a super-genius and can invent something that will earn you a lot of money.
Whilst rummaging through his deceased dad’s old junk in the attic, David and Christina discover an old video camera with some footage of David’s seventh birthday party still on it. It’s this point in the film where things promise to get interesting, as the older, current teenage David is seen wandering about in the background of his younger-self’s party. Lo and behold, David’s father was working on a time-travel device before he passed away, which the group discover securely locked in a box in the basement, and begin to use it to start playing around with time.
Whilst the plot is an intriguing mash-up of genre movies like Primer, The Butterfly Effect and Looper, there’s only one way I’d describe Project Almanac and that is as an aggressively found footage time travel movie. It constantly reminds you via various gimmicky methods and invasive camera angles that it is, at all times, unequivocally a Found. Footage. Movie.
I don’t inherently hate that style of film making. To be perfectly honest for a second, I’ve repeatedly and unashamedly admitted to being a fan of the style on numerous occasions. It’s been used fantastically well in slightly bigger budget films such as Cloverfield, Chronicle and End of Watch, as well as smaller budget indie movies like The Sacrament and The Bay, never mind the glut of b-movie horrors like [REC] and Grave Encounters and classics like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. I’m aware just how unusual a thing that is to admit to; for a lot of people, it’s an immediate cinematic turn off. As long as it’s used in an innovative way (or even in an unoriginal way, so long as it’s done well, such as in The Borderlands), then I don’t have a problem with it. As a method of film-making, I firmly believe it has gone beyond simply being a gimmick. It is now a creative choice made by directors who want their story to be told in a particular style, to put you ‘the viewer’ in the shoes of a character (or characters) as opposed to simply being about making it stand out from the crowd and/or more marketable.
So take it from me when I say that Project Almanac is a bad example of a found footage style movie. It may not always be apparent and I’m aware of my tendency to drift off on tangents in reviews, but I usually try to remain impartial and objective as often as I can. I know what I do and don’t like, but try not to let that colour my semi-professional opinion too dramatically. For this movie, I will throw all of my self imposed rules out of the window and drift into areas of outright subjectivity.
I have never, ever felt physically unwell because of a film before. The sound of cracking ankles in Audition came close and Antichrist made me feel uncomfortable in ways I can’t explain, but Project Almanac is a first for making me feel so nauseous that for a moment, I was about 90% certain I was going to throw up. In my haste to take off my jacket, roll up the sleeves of my jumper and unbutton my shirt to try and cool myself down a bit, I kicked some bloke’s foot (accidentally, of course) next to me, causing him and his chums to giggle like a gaggle of idiots. “Hur hur he touched your foot did you see that?” I probably did look like I was dying, which I suppose is quite funny. Right? I don’t know. It’s not kicking some bloke in his elevated foot that I’ve taken exception to.
Instead, it was the bloody intolerable rotating, swaying, spinning and wobbling shaky-cam that was causing my sudden rush of queasy stomach and throbbing temples. Have you ever been on a National Express coach on a warm summers evening that is overcrowded, where all of the windows are dripping with condensation, the stench from the chemical toilet is polluting the carriageway and all of a sudden the bozo next to you decides to eat a tuna sandwich that has been in their bag all day long? Well I have. And it wasn’t pleasant. It was that same feeling that was gripping me again. It got to the point that I (and the chap sitting in the isle over from me doing exactly the same thing) had to cover my eyes with my hand (obviously he covered his eyes with his hand, not my eyes with his … never mind) so I couldn’t see the screen. I just couldn’t stand to look at it any further.
If I wasn’t watching the film so I could talk about it on this week’s Failed Critics podcast, it would’ve been the first film I’d walked out on since abandoning an outdoor screening of The Exorcist in Reading a couple of years ago due to an unusually freezing cold night, a lack of promised barbecue (seriously, that was bang out of order) and faulty headphones picking up interference from a local radio station playing an interview with ZZ Top. But that is what Project Almanac did to me. It made me so unwell that if not for dashing out of the screen to drink some tap water from a squeaky polystyrene cup, I might have just fainted there and then in the cinema. It was like torture.
Well, probably not torture. I’m sure trivialising torture as being like subjecting yourself to a poorly shot film is a bit over the top. But you know what I mean.
The thing is, even with missing about 5 minutes worth of plot at a crucial point in the film as I sorted myself out before returning to finish the rest of the movie, it did not have any effect on my overall impression. Nor did it hinder my understanding of anything that had happened. Such is the nature of Project Almanac that you are never in any doubt whatsoever about what is happening and why at any particular point during proceedings. If you didn’t get it the first time, don’t worry, they’ll be going over it again later.
As for the story itself, the beginning of the film isn’t bad. As paper thin as the characters are, they all have moments that will make you smile, if not laugh. The hijinks they get up to as they work out various means of acquiring some cash and how best to use their new found technology seems true to form for a bunch of carefree young adults. Cheating on the lottery, going to festivals, that sort of thing, although playing the stock market is swiftly dismissed in what is but one of many references to Primer.
No one individual character is especially irritating either, which already makes it one step up from of a few of its contemporaries. You know which role each character is going to fulfil from the moment we meet them and the introduction of Sofia Black-D’Elia as Jessie, David’s crush, is timely and adds a much needed new dynamic to the group. Simply by way of association, Jessie makes David infinitely more interesting than the bore that he had been previously too, which is handy.
As unconvincing as the leaps in logic happen to be that lead to the jump from the group building a remote control drone powered by a mobile phone, to assembling a time machine from bits of old Xbox 360 and crap from the local DIY store – as Steve once said on an old podcast, you have to forgive shit like that in 90 minute time travel movies. There’s always going to be paradoxes, inaccuracies and stupid or unrealistic decisions. It doesn’t completely excuse some of the film’s faults, however, Project Almanac doesn’t purport to be anything more than it is. It clearly isn’t desperately trying to redefine what science fiction movies are. Instead, it feels like an homage to those movies it borrows heavily from. It’s firmly in that teen-to-mid-twenties age bracket demographic and it knows it. You may have seen Primer and found that graphic online that illustrates how faultless the film’s ideas around time travel are, but the audience Project Almanac is going for are those who may not have seen it. If they have, great, they’ll spot a few references, but if not then it doesn’t really matter. And that’s perfectly reasonable. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to understand the science aspect of its fiction, but it’s not exactly Sarah Palin levels of dumbing down either.
Aside from the dizzying shooting process, the shallow (albeit occasionally amusing) characters and jumbled references, the other problem the film has is its pacing. 40 minutes had passed when I checked my watch and barely anything of any note had happened yet aside from about two montages of machine building. Whoop-de-doo. There wasn’t even a Vince DiCola soundtrack! It took a further 10 minutes for any real dilemma or tension to exist at all, which was basically solely related to how the time travel was affecting the relationship between two of the excitable young teens; how it was forcing them to break their own set of rules and the consequences of doing so. But every scene that has something remotely clever in it is milked for all its worth, which also made the whole thing drag.
The crux of it is, if you’re looking for something on TV one night a year or two from now and stumble across Channel 4 at about 11pm, or if you’ve spent half an hour looking around Netflix and nothing stands out, then there are worse films than Project Almanac to waste 90+ minutes of your time on. Particularly if you have a pack of travel-sickness tablets going out of date but aren’t planning on going anywhere soon.
Project Almanac is in cinemas right now and you can pick up motion sickness tablets from most reliable pharmacists (and probably a few unreliable ones too.) Why not listen to Owen talk about the film on our latest podcast with Steve, Matt and Paul on your way there?