Project Almanac review

Project Almanac is the latest in a long line of high concept found footage movies that feature a group of teens up to some kind of mischief. The hook this time is time travel.

David Raskin (Jonny Weston) finds a time machine in his basement, and with his buddies gets it working again. Once it’s running, they travel back in time to improve their social situation, retake exams, visit Lollapalooza, win the lottery and so on.

But most importantly, David particularly wants to use the machine for a second stab at asking out Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), a girl that he has long harboured feelings for.

It’s this decision, and how it leads to the group inadvertently toppling dominoes, changing the present by affecting the past, that ultimately brings about the final act and imposes the overarching structure of a moral fable. Like a many time travel movies before, Project Almanac is ultimately a lesson in hubris, and of the potential cost involved in getting exactly what you want.

Writers Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan and director Dean Israelite wisely keep things personal in Project Almanac, despite the film having the surface of an effects-heavy science fiction picture. There’s good chemistry between the teens, and their seemingly petty concerns and personal preoccupations are entirely convincing. I’m sure the film will be highly relatable to a big section of its audience.

And it’s the scenes where this emotional drama take precedence over the high concept and plot propulsion that work the best. Israelite even shows a good, light touch when it comes to introducing a little humour from time to time.

But there are a number of areas in which Project Almanac is far less worthy of commendation. One of its biggest issues is in the way women are treated by the script, as well as by Israelite and Matthew J. Lloyd’s camera.

As Project Almanac is a ‘found footage film’ there are times when the image on screen is not only meant to represent a particular character’s viewpoint, but is literally intended as a framing that the character has deliberately created. A a result, the leering shots of women might sometimes be explained as an effect of characterisation; as something that reflects negatively on the characters and not necessarily on the filmmakers. But when the camera is simply placed on a table or strapped to someone and the framing still seems to prioritise a female character’s cleavage then it is simply obnoxious.

Of the group of friends who travel back in time, two border on being engineering geniuses, another is an obnoxious idiot, who some may find amusing even while he’s also incredibly annoying; one is rather underdeveloped, aside from some rather clumsy attempts to address bullying, and mainly seems to be there to hold the camera; and the last is presented, almost entirely, as nothing more than a desirable object coveted by the lead.

These last two characters also have no idea about or any interest in engineering or science, and defer to the ‘brainier’ characters at all times. And so they are, of course, female.

This gender separation is all the more sad and infuriating when one considers how much Project Almanac actually makes engineering and scientific processes look thrilling, and something that kids should be excited about. Watching David, who is revealed to have just qualified for MIT, and his friend Adam (Allen Evangelista) as they backwards engineer the device, develop a new time machine and then carry out tests was incredible fun and made heroes out of characters who would, in many teen movies of the past, simply be the butt of jokes.

It’s also disappointing that the time machine is built from a repurposed Xbox, their plans are made using Lenovo monitors and the results filmed with GoPros. The camera often lingers on the company logos just long enough for them to imprint, but one particularly cringeworthy moment goes beyond even this, featuring a can of Red Bull flying through the air.

In slow motion.

Just to remind you, Project Almanac is presented as a found footage film.

The ways in which Israelite breaks with found footage convention are so numerous that any sense of the format’s verisimilitude is banished within minutes. Casting aside the question of who edited all this footage together – which seems to be something very few filmmakers ever concerned about any more – I was still left left puzzling over the aforementioned slow-motion footage, the clear use of rack focus when two characters are talking and both in frame, edits that move the camera but maintain continuous sound, framing that doesn’t match the established camera placement, and all manner of other obvious transgressions against the conceit.

It seems like found footage was chosen to add danger to the more dramatic scenes and a sense of carefree fun and familiarity in the sequences where the characters just hang out together and party. On those counts, the style succeeds to some degree, but the way in which Israelite flouts the realities of found footage undermines the viewing experience far more than it adds.

Project Almanac sometimes proves to be surprising amount of fun, and is even rather dramatically involving. It’s a terrible shame that the film constantly betrays its own conceits, short changes its female characters, and accosts the audience with both a number of product placements and Imagine Dragons – who were almost certainly included at the insistence of producer Michael Bay.

Project Almanac is on wide release across the US, and has started playing in some UK cinemas now, before expanding to more on Friday 20th February.