The Good: Moments of concept, Acting is fine
The Bad: Direction, Low on character development
The Basics: MTV Films delivers a solidly average time-travel film that is entertaining, if not extraordinary.
As much of the world prepares for the excitement of the Oscar ceremony, I’m catching up on current films. Today, I decided to take in Project Almanac, for no particular reason (though I am a fan of science fiction films). Project Almanac is the latest film from MTV Films, a production company that is not going to be represented noticeably at tonight’s Oscars, despite the company having the occasional decent film like The Perfect Score (reviewed here!), which should have lessened the prejudice against it being associated with MTV.
Project Almanac is very much what people have come to expect of MTV now, including the lack of compelling music in the film. Project Almanac is a shaky-camera mock-reality film featuring young, good-looking people for whom high school is pretty much everything. Despite the MTV conceits, Project Almanac is watchable, though it is hardly original – it is essentially Chronicle (reviewed here!) meets The Butterfly Effect. While it is hard to imagine anyone but an early teen getting excited-enough about the film to want to add it to their permanent collection, Project Almanac nevertheless has its moments and it is entertaining-enough to watch. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how early the film’s protagonist recognized that his attempts at time-travel were going to be successful and stopped talking about the time machine as a potential failure and soldiers on with building the machine.
David Raskin is working on getting into MIT and getting a scholarship by designing a new control mechanism for drones. Videoing his attempt to control a programmed drone with his body movements and cell phone, while out with his friends Adam and Quinn and his sister, Christina (who operates the camera). The video has the desired effect; David gets into MIT, but instead of the $45,000 scholarship he needs, MIT offers $5,000. Unable to afford the tuition, David and Christina’s mother decides to sell their house to raise the money they need. That leads David and Christina into the attic to clean. While there, they discover an old video camera their father used to use. Watching the video, of David’s 7th birthday, David notices himself (his teenage self) in the mirror of a single shot. David is obsessing about the video with his friends and sister and that brings the group to the basement of the Raskin house where they notice (apparently, for the first time) a clicking when they turn the lights on and off. The clicking is coming from a small compartment in the floor, in which is a briefcase. Opening the D.A.R.P.A. case, David and his friends uncover blueprints and prototype components for a temporal relocation device. Being clever and having enough money to get many of the supplies at the hardware store, David and his friends attempt to build the time-travel device.
After a few weeks of building and experimenting, usually with inanimate objects ending up damaged and causing power outages, David and his friends are successful in moving back and forth in time. With the young woman David has a crush on, Jessie, the group begins to go on little jumps in time. Quinn uses the device to go back and pass a test, Christina uses it to thwart her bully, and Adam has the group go back to win the lottery (or some of it, anyway!). But the leaps come with unintended consequences ranging from a lost dog to a plane crash. When past versions of the group encounter themselves, the resulting paradox erases them from time. When Jessie so disappears, David uses the machine to return to his 7th birthday to destroy the plans for the time machine to prevent all of the chaos from ever happening!
Project Almanac is like Intro To Time Travel for those who have never seen the Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever” (reviewed here!) or had the patience to read The Time Traveler’s Wife (reviewed here!). It is very much a basic story that spends a lot of time with exposition on the nature of time travel, at the expense of developing well-rounded characters.
The acting and characters are what they are; like most films coming from MTV, Project Almanac features a young cast playing young people. The characters are motivated by the general priorities of late teenagers: David and his friends try to hook up, thwart bullies, ace tests, go to concerts, etc. They also try to avoid doing anything bad and have a real sense of remorse over their actions leading to deaths (though the weird prioritization on having a winning basketball team for the school is odd) and they try to do right. The young cast led by Jonny Weston as David are fine, though their parts require little in the way of acting, outside getting through jargon and reacting to the extraordinary changes in what they know of the world.
Project Almanac does not have big moments for the actors or their characters, largely because of director Dean Israelite’s enslavement to the form. The camera p.o.v. “documentary” style robs much of Project Almanac of its chance to capture the characters at their best or most interesting. Instead, the film is shot nauseatingly with a lot of quick movements and perspective shots that feel like the camera operator is inebriated.
What got Project Almanac into the soft “recommend” column of mine for such an average film with unpleasant direction was the subtle social message of the film. Project Almanac, stripped away of all of its conceits, is a warning to Ivy League schools and a commentary on American financial aid packages. David’s financial aid package is so bad that his mother has to sell their house just to get him into college. If MIT offered better financial aid packages, David and his sister and friends would not have gotten around to cleaning the attic, not found the vital clue, not found the plans, not nearly destroyed all existence through temporal paradoxes. Even the resolution to Project Almanac fits the idea; nearly killing a plane full of people doesn’t get David to stop using the time travel device – losing Jessie does. Hormonally-motivated individuals do not make great decisions; when they are smart and resourceful, they should be kept busy and stimulated. College does that, mad scientist laboratories do not. We need more lucrative financial aid packages for smart kids.
That might not be what the writers of Project Almanac intended as the enduring message of the film, but for adults going to see it, it might be the most memorable aspect of the otherwise average time travel flick!
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Seventh Son
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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