Sunday 15 March 2015

Project Almanac (2015) - Movie Review

I try and make an effort when it comes to not letting production companies’ involvement with a movie deter me from seeing it. This is a big exception, though, as we have a triumvirate of worrisome entries here: Insurge Pictures and MTV Films’ only features of note together in recent years are two pop star documentaries, and Platinum Dunes is the place where horror remakes go to die a slow and ugly death, while dragging stillborn original concepts down with them. When you include this with the fact that this is yet another entry in the now-largely-boring found footage genre, it starts to look something that belongs in the ‘must-avoid’ pile. But, given how much Michael Bay has managed to seriously surprise me in the last couple of years, I am willing to at least give this a try. That and I am kind of a sucker for time travel.

The plot: Teenaged inventor David (Jonny Weston) has just been accepted into MIT, but he is unable to pay the tuition fees. In the hope of finding something to get him sufficient money, he, his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) and his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) rummage through his father’s belongings and come across plans to build a working time machine. They work together to make one and test it out, only to discover that their journeys into the past have unexpected effects on the future.

Time travel plots nowadays seem to revolve around two basic ideas: Witness history or change history, and even then the former will undoubtedly lead into the latter. While this film can be compared to quite a few contemporary time travel flicks, something the characters seem to do well enough on their own, one comparison continued to niggle at me while watching this: Given a few tweaks, this is essentially the plot to The Butterfly Effect. From the main character being pushed to the brink of insanity to put right what once went wrong, the impetus that pushes him over that edge, right down to the resolution of the plot, this keeps smacking of something I’ve distinctly seen before and, quite frankly, seen done better. Now, while I would normally include some form of spoiler tag in front of all that just in case, I’m not for the simple reason that this film starts off on quite possibly the worst foot forward for any time travel plot. The event that starts everything into motion, that is David seeing himself at his younger self’s birthday party, pretty much outlines in big, bold letters what is going to occur and how it is all going to be wrapped up in the end. This is anti-tension of the highest order and kills any kind of suspense that could be gained from this kind of thriller.

It almost seems crucial to the sub-genre, but any work of fiction involving going back in time has to include plot holes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as some films like Looper can overcome those plot holes and still be good films in their own right. Here, however, the more glaring issues never cease to annoy through the entire film. Anything concerning time traveller copies is largely ignored, which gets very head-scratchy during the scene where Quinn has to try several times to ace his chemistry presentation; I can’t help but imagine an army of Quinn clones all trapped in a janitor’s closet. Then again, that wouldn’t necessarily work considering this film’s inclusion of ‘feedback loops’, admittedly a rather nifty addition that shows a different approach to the whole “What if you met your past self?” question.

Of course, on top of the time plot holes, we also have quite a few logic gaps to contend with here. Among the more egregious of these is the simple fact that, throughout their adventures back in time, they don’t even attempt to keep a low-profile. After all, it would only take one lone person to notice someone apparently being in two places at once for everything to become unravelled before too long. This is made even worse by the fact that, at the start, David shows a token amount of sense in this department by advising a rule of no social media, which is then quickly discarded and using said social media actually becomes a minor plot point in a later scene. Not only that, a majority of the events during the last third could have been averted if David did the sensible thing and admit to what was going on, a cliché that I thought was restricted mainly to shite romantic comedies. For both of the screenwriters here, this is their first attempt at a feature film, let alone a time travel caper, and it shows quite heavily.

Well, the writing doesn’t hold up as much, but how does the rest of it fare? Honestly, the rest of the production isn’t half bad. One of the serious problems I’ve had with some found footage films is the following of the write-every-main-character-to-be-unlikable lemming and thankfully we don’t get too much of that here; the only one who really comes close is Quinn, but he narrowly avoids being overly annoying at any point and mostly sticks to being mildly annoying. The acting, likewise, is pretty good too; I have to give Jonny Weston props for handling his character’s downward spiral in mental clarity during the final reel as well as he did and adding some much-needed oomph to the otherwise kind of tepid ending. I’ve seen a lot of flack given to the found footage camera work, but honestly this is easily some of the slickest I’ve seen in a while for this kind of film; it may be a little too slick and really blurs the line between standard footage and found footage at times, but it looks good. Even the glitch camera effects work here, culminating in what feels like a bit of self-awareness with the finale being filmed with the whites being off-balance due to the camera being knocked around so much.

Also, it manages to capture that air of teen wish fulfilment without delving into Project X territory: Getting backstage and on-stage at Lalapalooza, getting the dream girl, building a working time machine out of an Xbox 360 (Yes, as per Michael Bay’s M.O., this film is riddled with product placement); it may be pandering, but it’s pandering that works. The last time I saw a found footage film do it this well, it was with Chronicle; although, I will admit that that film made better use of the FF approach and gave it some dramatic weight to boot.

All in all, while the production as a whole is serviceable, the time travel writing itself doesn’t add enough ingenuity to be of any true merit, not to mention being filled with general plot holes that the majority isn’t able to cover up for. The fact that the plot, like I said, is as derivative as it is only makes recommending this film on any real level even harder. While I’d highly recommend checking out other recent time travel films instead like Looper, About Time or even last year’s Predestination, this isn’t really a bad sit; it’s just a statistic amongst its peers.

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