[Screen It]

"PROJECT ALMANAC"
(2015) (Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D'Elia) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A group of teens must contend with the ramifications of finding plans for a time machine, building the device, and then traveling back in time.
PLOT:
David Raskin (JONNY WESTON) is a high school senior and science whiz who's just been accepted to MIT, much to the joy of his mom and younger, high school age sister, Chris (GINNY GARDNER). David's buddies and fellow geeks Adam (ALLEN EVANGELISTA) and Quinn (SAM LERNER) are happy for him as well, but the problem is that MIT's offer only comes with $5,000 in financial aid. Needing a way to make a money-generating impression, David goes through his late father's scientific papers in the attic. While doing so, Chris discovers an old video camera that shows footage of David's seventh birthday, the last time they saw their dad alive.

But the shocking thing is that in a couple of frames of the video, David believes he spots a mirror reflection of his current self at that birthday party a decade ago. They and Adam and Quinn eventually come to believe that their father, working with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), was developing a time machine, and decide to try and build it via his plans that they discover in his old basement lab, along with a temporal displacement engine that just needs enough power to work.

That results in them eventually using the batteries in the hybrid car driven by Jessie (SOFIA BLACK-D'ELIA), the girl at school with whom David is quite smitten. Accordingly, she ends up seeing their experiment work on a small scale. And noting that they have video proof that they already successfully traveled back in time, she convinces them to try it on themselves. With the limited power ability to only go back three weeks in time, they decide to win the lottery, get revenge on a classmate who's been bullying Chris, and get a better chemistry class grade for Quinn.

But a trip back to Lollapalooza changes everything in that David realizes he blew his chance to kiss Jessie. Breaking their rules about always traveling as a group, David goes back to that event, kisses her, and returns to the present to discover that she's his girlfriend. But he also learns that these temporal jumps have resulted in dire ripple effects due to the various changes in the past. From that point on, he goes back and tries to fix them, unaware that doing so is only going to make things worse.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
As of this writing, the jackpot for one of the big lotteries in the U.S. stands at more than $250 million. Many more people than usual end up buying tickets when the pot grows to such an immense size and, inevitably, the question du jour often ends up along the lines of "What would you do if you won that much money?" The usual answers are quitting one's job, buying a big house, maybe an expensive sports cars, and giving some to charity.

Obviously, the big problem is that the odds are so long -- more than 1 in 175,000,000 in this case -- that the issue isn't how to spend the money. Instead, it's how to pick the correct numbers. Of course, if one had a time machine, it would be quite easy to take a quick trip back in time with the winning numbers in hand, purchase just one ticket, and then return to the present to collect one's winnings. But if one had such a time machine, the question would be "What would you do if you could travel back in time and change something?"

That's long been the subject of many a sci-fi novel, TV show and movie, and that trend continues in the latter category with "Project Almanac." Unfortunately arriving in the "found footage" sub-genre format -- which means lots of nausea-inducing handheld camerawork apparently designed to appease today's younger audiences but really just meaning it allows for lazy shot framing and camerawork -- the flick does indeed involve going back to claim a winning lottery ticket. But said time travelers -- high school students David (Jonny Weston), Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) -- apparently aren't bright enough to write down all of the numbers correctly despite being smart enough to build such a temporal displacement device from the discovered plans formerly designed by David's late father.

That's just a bit of humor and irony that are present in this screenplay by Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman that's far more fun and entertaining in its first half than in the second when the action, peril and ramifications of messing around with time take over most of the proceedings.

Of course, had director Dean Israelite opted to shoot this in a traditional style rather than as a shaky cam feature filled with lots of jump cuts (designed to represent all of the moments the camera is turned on and off and/or recording and paused), the flick might have worked a bit better. There's absolutely no good reason for the found footage approach, and while a few lines of dialogue are present to try to explain the always present, point-of-view camera, it's not always believable and thus comes off as distracting.

I did like the initial temporal limitations the scribes put on the jumping, thus allowing those students -- along with David's younger high school student sister, Chris (Ginny Gardner), and the "hot chick" he's enamored with, Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia) -- access to only three weeks backwards. That results in a number of hijinks, get-even schemes, and re-dos in terms of getting a good grade in chemistry class, along with more uses of "dude" than you might care to hear in one sitting.

None of that seems to have any great temporal ripples, a.k.a. the dreaded Butterfly effect of small changes in the past resulting in an altered present. When a backward excursion to Lollapalooza results in David missing his chance to kiss Jessie, however, he breaks the group's rules and travels solo to make romantic amends. And then the ripples start flowing and he continues going back trying to fix those and so on. Apparently he missed the memo on the old notion of "With great power comes great responsibility."

It's intriguing material, but nothing we haven't seen before, and the film makes the mistake of bringing up past time travel offerings that were either more fun (one of the "Bill & Ted" flicks is briefly seen) or more compelling and better made (there's a reference to "Looper"). It also brings to mind other such genre pics, most notably "About Time," in terms of using such a device for romance and the related thematic elements of manipulating "reality" to get someone to fall for you.

Having tried my hand at writing a time travel screenplay, I always wonder if those involved in such a finished product wish they could go back in time and change something about their work. If it were me, I'd travel back, buy the cinematographer a Steadicam, and focus more on making the script smarter than in delivering yet another unwanted, found footage flick. Not as bad as I imagined given the press screening was just one night before the film opened, "Project Almanac" is decent enough to rate as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 28, 2015 / Posted January 30, 2015


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