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Monday, September 21, 2015

Movie Monthly - Project Almanac

Previously in Movie Monthly I’ve stated my serious affection for found footage films.  However, I do realize this particular claim needs a bit of clarity.  When I say I like found footage films what I really mean is that I like found footage horror movies, mainly because the horror genre has a lot of interesting and engaging subgenre and elements that rarely get explored because they aren’t considered profitable.  So, if dressing up your Bigfoot horror movie in the clothes of a found footage flick both as a cost cutting measure and a way to convince investors and audiences this is a film worth their time I’m all for it (don’t worry, we’ll get to the Bigfoot films another time.)  However, I am aware that found footage horror isn’t the only aspect of this particular formatting tool in existence, there’s also the far less often employed Sci-Fi found footage film like Chronicle or today’s offering Project Almanac.  

I tend to cut Sci-Fi found footage films a lot less slack than I do horror found footage mainly because I don’t think that found footage actually extends any kind of inherent benefit to the story it’s being used to tell.  Additionally, most crazy Sci-Fi ideas can find backing and consideration on their own merits, you don’t know need to dress up a time travel in found footage clothes to get it made is my point.  Still, I like to go into films with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised and I’d heard that Project Almanac was highly underrated.  Unfortunately that claim proved untrue, Project Almanac was rated exactly right: a C grade film.
I don’t usually talk about merely mediocre films on Movie Monthly but Project Almanac fits into a very bizarre subset of interests for me so I’m making an exception, also my original planned film for this spot turned out to be unwatchably awful.  Project Almanac is about a group of high school tech heads who are clearly super smart but each facing their own unique problems.  However, their lives change forever when their leader, whom I’ve nicknamed Lead One, discovers the blue prints and equipment to build a time machine in his dead father’s basement workshop.  From their the plot follows a fairly predictable set of steps with the major enemy of the story being the poorly realized pacing.  We spend over half the film’s running time on the characters working to build the time machine, which is a bit of a shame because it’s the least interesting part of the story.  I get the distinct sense these sequences are meant to be reminiscent of like Iron Man where the film’s at its best when its just Tony screwing around making cool gadgets in his workshop but there’s a big difference between Robert Downey Jr. in a well shot tech-comedy sequence and the teens they got to star in this film Go-Proing their way around a basement. 

However, when the film finally gets around to actually having time travel in it and jumps to the standard “heroes abuse their power” portion of the story it’s actually pretty fun.  It’s all pretty standard high school self indulgences but I can actually get behind that as an activity and the found footage aspect actually enhances the mood of these sequences.  There’s a whole section of the film cobbled together from MTV concert footage and even though it’s a little tacky you can’t help but get caught up in the fun of it all.  The film does a good job of never pushing any of the kids over into unlikable through their self indulgence as well as avoiding special leaning too hard on special effects to drive their fun.  One of my big problems with Chronicle was that the kids “indulging” their abilities was really tedious and alienating because the activities were too removed from a sense of actual fun, whereas in Project Almanac everything the time travelers do actually seems like legitimately fun activities.  These sequences are the best in the film because the group dynamic shines through the strongest and is actually complemented by the sci-fi weirdness; it honestly plays like a more modernized Fantastic Four. 
Where the film eventually loses itself is in the pre-requisite “short sighted indulgence” of the third act.  As I said, Project Almanac’s storyline is about as well worn as these things get outside of actually conforming to the hero’s journey so that they went this way isn’t a surprise even if the execution is decidedly flawed.  The big problem with the sequence is the ever-present enemy of all time travel stories: over-complicated narrative and universe inconsistency.  Basically what happens is that fractious cracks in reality start appearing as the groups various time changes have unintended butterfly effects.  It eventually comes to light that all these new, horrible changes are the result of the Lead One going back in time to make sure he got together with a girl he liked.  That’s a worthwhile idea for a time travel dilemma and to Project Almanac’s credit they do a good job making Lead One’s descent into madness trying to figure out how he can fix the butterfly effects while keeping his girlfriend pretty convincing.  

The downside is that this is a time travel story we’ve all seen done before and done better, most notably in episodes of Fringe and Regular Show and worse, those stories did the same thing but in a more straight forward and understandable manner.  That’s Project Almanac’s biggest flaw, the film is never really clear about how time travel actually works in their universe with a lot of contradictory examples thrown at the audience.  As a result, when the third act roles around and suddenly everything comes down to very precise time alterations we’re left scratching our heads as the film starts to eat its own tale on the time travel front.  This really comes through in the ending scene, which is meant to be poignant and moving; again in the style of Regular Show or Fringe’s time travel plots, but just comes off inert and empty. 
I think what’s so compelling to me about Project Almanac is its odd place in genre history.  Sci-Fi and horror have been repeatedly thrust together as genres, most notably during the B-Movie schlock phase of the ‘50s and as a result the two genres have a weird tendency to bleed into one another.  Project Almanac could’ve been a chance to rekindle the connection both genres used to share through a new bridge of found footage as that particular interplay was always beneficial.  The weird umbrella terminology of B-Movie and Schlock is what helped develop the idea of Sci-Fi Horror that eventually led to classics like Alien or Predator while also paving the way for horror iconography as a punctuation point for sci-fi adventure that would eventually lead to things like the Underworld series of films.  With the boom in sci-fi and its subsequent visual redefinition through the current television renaissance a new umbrella birthed through the shared formatting of found footage would be a great way to re-invigorate the horror genre with a fresh ethos, it’s just a shame that’s not what Project Almanac turned out to be.  

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