Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey‘s appearance in Hall H wasn’t the only surprise aspect of Paramount‘s lengthy San Diego Comic-Con panel yesterday. It was also announced, after a brief clip was shown, that "Project Almanac," the Michael Bay-produced found footage time travel movie, would also be screened for select attendees. We were able to attend the screening and, while it doesn’t exactly blaze a new trail, the movie is smart and knowingly acknowledges both its place in the time travel subgenre and its formal limitations as a found footage movie. That self-awareness makes it fun and silly and, yes, kind of stupid, but in ways that are mostly enjoyable and forgivable.
David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is a high school senior and a scientific genius. When the movie begins, we’re watching the application video that David is submitting to MIT. He awkwardly addresses the camera as he moves around a small hovering drone that he is piloting using sensors on his fingers and his smart phone. He’s basically like a teenage Tony Stark. David gets accepted, but his scholarship didn’t come through, which leads him to attempt to secure a grant elsewhere, possibly by appropriating some kind of dusty experiment his dead father tinkered with years ago.
After finding an old camcorder in the attic, David decides to see what’s on it. When replaying footage of his eighth birthday party, the last time he saw his father alive, David makes an even more startling discovery: a few frames appear to show David, as he currently is now, walking through his younger self’s birthday party. This leads David to discover that his father was working on the prototype for some kind of time machine—a time machine that he clearly figured out how to master.
Along with his nerdy best friends, who are also super smart and obsessed with science, Quinn and Adam (played by Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista), and his adorable but inexplicably "bullied" younger sister Christina (Virginia Gardner), they experiment and tinker, working on both constructing the time machine and decoding the mystery of the initial video. There really isn’t any reason that anyone would be filming these kids incessantly, especially since a large majority of time is spent just watching them hang out and bullshit around, while David ineffectually flirts with his cute but unattainable crush (Sofia Black-D’Elia).
But one of the film’s biggest charms is that it is totally comfortable with the fact that it is a time travel movie—and a found footage time travel movie at that—and then subverting or upending the rules of both the genre and the format. There are things like slow motion, an actual musical score, and inexplicable angles, throughout the movie. But instead of taking you out of the story, it reinforces the fact that the characters are fully dimensional people and worth paying attention to. And the fact that the teens, in their social media-obsessed and pop culture-saturated landscape, are constantly referencing technology and, more importantly, other time travel movies, grounds it in a way that few movies of the subgenre have. One sequence is built around a character’s love of "Looper," while another sequence shows them watching "Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure." Yes, the kids are primarily inspired by the footage of David’s father, but they’re just as fueled by "Back to the Future"—to them, it’s all movies.
After proving that the time machine works, they experiment with the technology—first just going back a few hours, then a couple of days. They win the lottery, but realize that they had written down the winning numbers wrong so they have to go back and do it again ("Project Almanac," it should be noted, is streaked with some very funny gags), and as their tampering with the timeline intensifies, it produces some unexpected consequences. The movie’s second half is considerably darker and more intense than the first, with the gang discovering that even the most innocuous "jump" can cause ripple effects—everything from the high school football team losing the championship to a jumbo jet crashing and killing everyone on board. There’s also that tricky time travel paradox of you running into your past self, which, in "Project Almanac" at least, means you’re wiped from the timeline completely.
Unfortunately, as the movie intensifies, the levels of fun also suddenly drop. "Project Almanac" is the most enjoyable when it is just about these kids goofing off and discovering how to control this awesome power—something with seemingly limitless potential (monetarily, socially, etc.) that they instead use for typical teenager things like buying a sports car and winning over the super foxy girl who you never had the guts to talk to before. When the actual mechanics of time travel become more of a concern, both plot-wise and for the audience, and the atmosphere darkens, that kind of relatable fun dissipates. It’s no longer a movie about other movies; and all those interesting thematic tidbits about how we watch and interpret things from our immediate and distant past and change those for the future, suddenly become less important. The churning engine of the time travel story becomes king, and everything else serves at its feet.
But this only does so much to dampen what is otherwise a very, very good time. All of the young actors are committed, and director Dean Israelite has a good handle on the material, offering his own contributions to the time travel genre (like how violent the act itself is) while continually tipping his hat to what came before it. If "Project Almanac" had let the good times roll a little bit longer, with the danger and threat always at the periphery, then it probably would have been an even more solid ride. As it stands, it’s a rare time travel movie that does try to cover some new ground, even while shaking off that nagging feeling of déjà vu.[B]