Charles! This is an urgent missive from future Charles, sent back via time travel technology!
You just got out of Chronicle, which you loved. You think you just saw the breakthrough performance of Dane Dehaan, who you think has to become a massive star. (Instructions: do watch Kill Your Darlings; avoid Amazing Spider-Man 2 at all costs, especially since – you’re not going to believe this – there won’t be an Amazing Spider-Man 3! Keep your innocence you darling child…) At this moment, if I recall correctly, you have all the hope in the world for the found footage (sorta) genre (sorta medium) as it peaks its head sheepishly outside the boundaries originally set for it by The Blair Witch Project. Chronicle seems like the beginning of a new age, and in the coming year, James, your fellow Culture Conquistador, is going to turn you on to an upcoming time travel film called Welcome to Yesterday that’s going to get your Chronicle senses tingling.
They’ll keep tingling even after Welcome to Yesterday gets pushed back a year into the dreaded February dead zone. Even after Earth to Echo, another kids-with-cameras-deal-with-sci-fi-shennanigans two-hander, beats it to theaters and steals its thunder. Heck, even after the name is changed from Welcome to Yesterday, which, like Edge of Tomorrow, is a bit vague and middle school poetry-ish, but at least sounds like a time travel film, you’ll still be waiting for the newly-renamed Project Almanac to confirm your unifying theory of found footage: that it’s not the finding of the footage that has made so many of these films odious, it’s that so little care was put into anything other shaking the camera violently after seeing OMG WHAT”S THAT THING OVER THERE?!
I’m not reaching back to you through the fabric of time to tell you’re wrong necessarily. The found footage revolution is coming. You shouldn’t give up hope. But Project Almanac is not the affirmation you’re looking for.
I’m not telling you to not see it. It has its charms as a teen hang-out movie, though that hang-out movie does as poor a job of justifying why a camcorder is always around as just about every other found footage film. Even so, as these bright young men (we’ll get to the woman in a moment) finagle their new time machine just so, there’s a nifty “Isn’t science just the neatest??” tone that is VERY winning.
I am telling you this though: get out all while the getting is good! When the film spends so long at a Lollapalooza bacchanal that you feel like your movie ticket might have actually BEEN a ticket for Lollapalooza, calmly exit the theater. The future depends on it.
I know you don’t like spoilers. Maybe you’ll trust they’re worthwhile if they come from your future self. Here are the reasons you’ll be better off leaving Project Almanac before it puts its serious-paradox-face on:
1) It has some pretty strange ideas about the way technology would react to being displaced in time. There’s a moment early on in the music festival sequence where Quinn tells his friends not to worry about what to go see, and I thought he was going to say “Because we can come back here as many times as we want and see everything!” but instead he says he can look up reviews of the show on his phone right now since they already happened in his phone’s eyes. This seems to underline a profound misunderstanding of how the Internet works (even if the reviews were already in his feed, his phone would be freaking out at the download of incoming posts that should’ve happened days ago) that is really indicative of some strange chicanery surrounding tech in general. Cameras in particular. The whole twist at the end of the film revolves around the idea that the infinitely powerful time machine could be destroyed by a simple trash can fire, and that the time machine never existing would create such a paradox that it would completely eliminate the timeline in which the time machine existed in the first place, returning everyone to obliviousness, BUT the camera would stay right where it was placed in the past. To be clear: the paradox would clean out its system by spitting a human male out, but it’d invite the camera to hang out seven years in the past, in spite of the fact that the camera would also have never been there if not for time travel. LET ALONE ALL THE FOOTAGE ON IT. The last interaction of the movie, where our hero walks up to his lady love and invites her back into the secret time travel cult is entirely unclear: is he proposing they build a new time machine from scratch, is he saying they should go win the lottery next week since the camera has told him the right numbers, is he just flirting with a girl he knows has a crush on him because of time travel? Either way, him acting on any of the footage he sees on this magic time-travel immune, paradox immune camera completely counters his decision to divorce himself from the all-encompassing but destructive power of foresight and hindsight, which is a dramatic decision he HAD JUST MADE! Maybe that’s the point? Doesn’t matter. You will be too angry at the God Camera to care.
2) The makers of this film clearly saw Chronicle. They saw it and said, “We can do that, but with time travel instead of super powers.” So much of the film follows the same formula as your beloved Chronicle: a group of teens discover something awesome and scientifically vague together and make a pact to keep it secret and always engage in every step of the learning process as one unit. In Chronicle this made sense, and Andrew Detmer’s betrayal came from a place of clearly established woundedness and had sweeping effects on the story. David Raskin, Project Almanac’s protagonist, breaks his group’s time travel rule too. Like Adnrew, he also does it because of a poorly executed flirtatious encounter with an interested female. But where Andrew’s lashing out festered from so many other wounds, David’s descent down the time travel rabbit hole is purely brought on by his own shame at being the most oblivious and least communicative handsome nerd-boy in the history of handsome nerd-boys. Still, that’s not what rankles. It’s this: David is breaking a rule that everyone agreed to follow – we always travel as a group of five. As punishment for breaking this rule, things quickly descend into chaos that even our chosen genius can’t keep up with. Here’s the problem; actually punishing him for breaking this rule enforces that it was good rule to begin with. It wasn’t. It was a stupid rule that only carries any weight because everyone agreed to it. What follows makes some sense emotionally because it stems from a betrayal of trust, but as time travel logic, it rings false on every level. Why is always traveling together a good idea? It’s not like the group always holds hands and keeps away from people to keep their Butterfly Effect low! At Lollapalooza they’re all running every which way. All their stupid rule means is that instead of accidentally causing the death of the lead singer of Imagine Dragons as individuals, they could cause it as a marauding band of FIVE insanely irresponsible time travelers. This is all fine when it’s a lark and you don’t have to think about the consequences. Once the film implies that consequences only come once David goes back on his own and messes with the pasts of his own friends (rather than other random people we as the audience don’t know that well) it does severe damage to its own validity. (It also makes us question those friends’ intelligence when their leader begins finishing their sentences and acting like someone – a time traveler perhaps?? – who has been through these interactions before. Come on guys, put it together!) Is it crushing when Jessie breaks down upon finding out that David has been meddling with her past to win her back? Absolutely. But does it hold any water considering she’s been manipulating the time stream to affect her own relationships for weeks? Absolutely not. Jessie is just a device, someone who is in the movie to be betrayed, to love David “even though” he’s a nerd. Somehow, in spite of this, she gets more agency than David’s sister Christine, who is tasked with holding the camera and whose only defining characteristic is that she apparently gets bullied by a mean girl, whose only desire is to not be bullied by that mean girl. In a movie where the boys get to run around shouting “SCIENCE!” all the time, it sucks profoundly that the half of the cast that’s female is openly oblivious to anything that’s going on, to the point where David’s mother doesn’t realize that her children are spending weeks upon weeks causing violent explosions in her dead husband’s off-limits basement laboratory.
3) Speaking of that dead husband/father and his tricked out basement laboratory… You know what’s really wrong with Project Almanac, past Charles? It’s not that every moment in the film is accounted for by cameras the characters hold; you can’t blame found footage for this, though Charles, you will want to. Everyone will. It’s so easy to look at a scene like the one where Christine follows her clearly distraught and crying brother up to the attic not to console him but to film his grieving – a scene which, thanks to the magic of time travel, we actually get to see twice, thank goodness – and say that found footage will always be too convoluted to really work. Yes, acrobatics like this sad little trapeze stunt do tend to happen in found footage films, but they happened at the opening of Chronicle too. Like any movie that moves past some of the awkward growing pains of its opening scenes, Project Almanac could have easily grown past this. You know what a found footage film needs in order to grow into a successful feature? What any film needs? Focus, focus, focus. And everything from the change of the film’s name to reflect the time machine’s DARPA project designation, Project Almanac, to the heavy emphasis in the film on home video footage from the day David’s father received a super-mysterious phone call, hid his super-mysterious time machine and died in a super-mysterious car accident focuses our attention on the potential onto something much bigger and more shadowy and government-y and conspiracy-y than these five kids tinkering with time travel technology so they can win the lotto. As we spend an interminable amount of time watching our heroes use time travel to get VIP access at a music festival, we assume that DARPA must be breathing down their neck looking to cover up for whatever it is they did to David’s father. This is compounded by the fact that we know from the home video footage that David returning to the day of his father’s death is inevitable; we know that scene is coming and we expect two things: David will cathartically find out what happened to his father and he will do everything in his power to stop it. Instead, the film, strangled by its own time loops, literally begins glitching. As our found footage begins jumping and cutting and blotching, David and his father essentially nod and say “Sup” to each other before David’s father exits the scene to get in his car accident and David burns the time machine before it can ever be used. Maybe the film is telling us that some things are better left unexplored and unmeddled with – that seems to be the overarching theme – but if that’s the case, why send the audience missed signals about how David’s father’s death was tied to his work. Why not just imply that this was some random tragedy not tied to a nefarious emergency science phone call at all?
What if I told you that all that stuff I said about this message being “urgent” and the future hinging on you leaving Project Almanac at the right time was true, but I refused to clarify? Heck, maybe it’s not true! I heavily implied that there was something more nefarious involved in your future than just the simple non-enjoyment of a movie, which I’m sure you’re extremely curious about… But, all I’ll tell you is this. Someday, you’re going to go to Lollapalooza. It’s going to be a pretty fun day. You could probably afford to have one less drink than I ended up having past Charles. But there are going to be a lot of good bands and the weather is going to be nice. Best wishes, past Charles, peace out and oh yeah, praise be unto our God Camera overlords.