What have we done to deserve another found-footage movie? The tired hand-held technique that seemed so fresh in 1999 with “The Blair Witch Project” long ago wore out its welcome.
The only thing noteworthy about its use in “Project Almanac,” which follows a group of high school misfits who invent a time-travel apparatus, is that this particular found footage film isn’t really a horror film, but a sci-fi thriller. Used as a means to gain an entry into the lives of these kids, it makes what could have been a fresh send-up of genre conventions seem as cheap and forgettable as all the rest.
In the film, David (Jonny Weston), a handsome social outcast and brilliant science mind, finds out that he’s been accepted into MIT but with a scholarship that just isn’t enough. While digging around in old projects done by his late father (an inventor of sorts) to try to find anything of value, he and his little sister stumble across an old video recorder of David’s 7th birthday party, where they notice a shadowy figure in the mirror in one of the shots: a 17-year-old David.
While trying to figure out the mystery of how this could be possible, David and his friends uncover blueprints for a time travel machine and immediately get to work building it, testing it and, eventually, using it. In a somewhat amusing wink to the audience, the characters keep restating that they have to film everything.
But the first hour of the film is so relentlessly paced, it feels like it’s on fast-forward. From the camera movements to the manic dialogue and energy of the teens, the audience is pummeled with jargon and mostly useless information as the kids try to get a handle on their new toy.
There also are a host of just out-of-date references (jokes about films like “Argo” and “Looper” from 2012) that only serve to remind that this movie, previously titled “Welcome to Yesterday,” has been sitting on the shelf for a year.
Even though those remain, there were some last-minute edits that took place (between even an early January screening and its release today). Paramount and Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes took heat for using footage of an actual plane crash in the movie. They “are in the process of removing the footage from the film and promotional materials,” the studio said in a statement on the eve of its release, declining to specify what will replace it.
That’s not to say there aren’t any good ideas here. When the kids finally figure out how to jump back in time, and everything mercifully slows down, things get pretty fun for a while as they do exactly what you might expect teenagers would do – going back in time a few days to ace a failed chemistry test, stand up to your bully, win some lotto money and so on.
There’s also a great sequence that brings the teens to the music festival Lollapalooza that is actually as joyous to watch as it presumably is to be there.
Things take a dark turn in the film when David gets greedy and jumps back in time alone to try to re-do a botched moment with his crush (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and bad things start happening in the future, but interest wanes as the stakes get higher.
Director Dean Israelite in his feature debut proves that he has a keen knack for conveying teen pluck, friendships and flirtations. The scenes that show the actual process of time travel are even quite thrilling and inventive, but the found-footage gimmick makes it nearly impossible to evaluate his talents.
It’s time to hang up the GoPro and return to actual filmmaking.
Cast: Jonny Weston, Amy Landecker, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Virginia Gardner
Director: Dean Israelite
Rated: PG-13 (some language and sexual content)