Once there was a scrappy little time travel movie called Primer. Produced for just $7,000, Shane Carruth's 2004 indie proved that thoughtful science fiction films didn't have to be made on a blockbuster scale — and inspired reams of obsessive online analysis.
Now imagine that the suits at MTV, figuring that their target audience hadn't seen Primer, unofficially remade the cult film using the cast, aesthetics and plotting of one of their glossy "reality" shows. Voilà Project Almanac, a mashup that is intriguing in conception and painful to watch.
Shooting a movie in found-footage style is a surefire way to turn it into a lean, mean production. But what worked just fine for the already-minimalist horror genre (Paranormal Activity) and sort of worked for the monster movie (Cloverfield) and the superhero flick (Chronicle) doesn't work so well for the time-travel subgenre. The script by Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan barely even gestures at a justification for the camera's omnipresence. Meanwhile, first-time feature director Dean Israelite works so hard to keep the action hedonistically frenetic that character and plot development sink into oblivion.
The film opens as an application video with which whiz kid David (Jonny Weston) hopes to clinch a scholarship to MIT. With his sister (Virginia Gardner) behind the camera, and his interchangeable nerdy besties (Sam Lerner and Allen Evangelista) cheering him on, he watches his experiment crash and burn. Still hoping to wow a scholarship committee, David follows a series of clues to his dead father's basement workshop, which is tricked out like a mad scientist's lab and might as well bear a sign reading "Flux Capacitor Stored Here." In other words, it's the first place any real kid seeking a killer science project would look. And, sure enough, it turns out to contain the blueprints for a time machine.
That delayed discovery is a small example of the film's clumsy plotting, but an indicative one. Characters conveniently forget to think about important stuff — like, oh, those pesky paradoxes that occur when you alter the past — until the script suddenly requires them to do so. The rest of the time, they're running around, exploding things, making throwaway references to better time-travel movies and attending Lollapalooza.
Yes. Forget assassinating Hitler: In the film's central set piece, the kids travel three whole months back in time, equipped with VIP passes bought for pennies in the present, to go backstage at an Imagine Dragons show. Presented in would-be-trippy montage, the sequence seems to last an eternity.
Granted, there's something refreshing — if not exactly shocking — about the premise of a bunch of teenagers who gain an awesome power and use it for the pettiest objectives imaginable. Had the filmmakers taken a wickedly satirical approach to that idea, Heathers-style, Project Almanac might have soared.
Instead, the film asks us to wallow in the characters' wish fulfillment, then to get genuinely concerned when the consequences of their reckless rewriting of history catch up with them. As in Primer, time travel begins as an ingenious reality hack and becomes an addiction. David struggles to preserve the best possible time line for his burgeoning romance with popular girl Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), while the viewer wonders why he can't fix things by, oh, maybe going up and talking to her in the present tense.
It's hard to escape the creeping sense that the filmmakers have underestimated their target demo. As a result, they've dumbed down a genre that simply doesn't work without protagonists who are intelligent enough to take the measure of the messes they've made. Marty McFly had time-travel trouble. These kids just need to put the flux capacitor back in the box before they hurt themselves.