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‘Project Almanac’ Review: Found Footage Goes Back to the Future

Project Almanac 1
Paramount

Woe be unto humanity if teenagers discover time travel. That’s the main takeaway from the entertaining new found-footage thriller ‘Project Almanac,’ in which a quintet of adolescents find a time machine, and do exactly what a bunch of adolescents would do if they found a time machine: Party, prank, and screw around with no thought to the consequences of their actions. These kids know and cite ‘Looper’ and ‘The Terminator,’ but the movie they should have paid attention to was ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ because they seem caught off-guard when their innocent misadventures in the timestream begin to ripple out in dangerous ways.

It all begins with a mystery. Ambitious and brilliant high-school senior David (Jonny Weston) is rummaging through his late father’s inventions in the family attic, searching for a way to pay his tuition to M.I.T., when he and sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) stumble on an old video camera with a recording of David’s seventh birthday party. Hidden in the background of the tape is a figure who looks a lot like 17-year-old David. But how did he get there? The search for answers soon engulfs David’s best friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), and leads to David’s basement, where his father had inexplicably buried the key components of a time machine, along with instructions about how to reassemble it.

A few sequences are dedicated to building the machine and testing it out on inanimate objects, but eventually the device is completed and the fun really begins. The four friends plus David’s crush Jessie (Sofia Black D’Elia) begin testing out the machine’s limits, initially going back a few hours at a time, but then getting bolder with their jumps and their activities.

All of those activities are captured with hand-held cameras in the style of found footage, and to the credit of director Dean Israelite, he does a better-than-average job of aping the look and feel of authentic cell-phone camera footage, and keeps the number of impossible cross-cuts or unmotivated angles to an absolute minimum. He also finds plausible ways to keep the cameras constantly rolling; there’s David’s video application to M.I.T. at the beginning, and then once the time-travel experiments begin the cameras are kept around to document their progress. (In a moment that draws chuckles, he caps off one successful test by instructing his sister “From now on, film everything!”) Of course, it’s totally unclear, as it is in so many found-footage movies, just who found this footage and cut it together, but it’s best not to think about such things.

It’s also best not to think about the intricacies of ‘Project Almanac’’s time travel. When David and his buddies attempt to rewrite history, their techniques often don’t make a lot of sense. (Could you really just redo the same day over and over again? Wouldn’t you bump into your past self in the midst of previous attempts?) In a way, time-travel and found-footage are well-suited to each other; they’re both fun but paradoxical, and each demands a certain suspension of disbelief. But looking past the gaps in logic, there’s a decent sci-fi thriller here, and even a solid moral fable about the dangers of reckless teenage behavior and the need to embrace the future instead of dwelling on the past.

Those messages are particularly surprising since ‘Project Almanac’ is a Michael Bay production. And, to be sure, there are a few Bay trademarks present, from rampant and distracting product placement for energy drinks to frequent leering shots of the bare legs of underage women. (Michael Bay is basically what would happen if Wooderson from ‘Dazed and Confused’ went to Hollywood and discovered slow-motion photography.) But ‘Project Almanac’ is more thoughtful and more mature than it first appears. It indulges in pubescent fantasy, but only as a means to explore how destructive those fantasies can be when they grow out of control and get inflicted on others without their consent.

‘Project Almanac’ could have used a little more formal rigor in terms of clearly laying out its rules of time travel, which seem to shift and warp over the course of the film. And as a found-footage story of teenagers who discover incredible power (and enjoy them until they overwhelm their moral compasses), it’s a pretty shameless ripoff of ‘Chronicle.’ But as shameless ripoffs go, it’s a pretty good one, with more to say about its characters than you might expect.

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