The following contains spoilers for Project Almanac. You have been warned.
Teen Love? Time Travel? Music Festvals and failed kisses? It’s Project Almanac, y’all! Erik Paschall, Rachel Lutack and I got together to discuss all the ins, outs, and loops of this sci-fi high school romp.
Erik: First off, let me say that I am strongly against the stifling of artistic endeavors and personal expression; however, I believe it is time we set aside some of our freedoms and make found footage movies illegal.
Rachel: I actually have been a fan of this genre, mostly owing to Chronicle, and I went into Project Almanac expecting to enjoy it. I did enjoy it for its entertainment value, and thought that a lot of the camera work was actually pretty impressive, but I do understand your sentiments. The way they tackled who was filming and why was often stretched and ridiculous.
Erik: At the very least I think it should be mandatory for a filmmaker to submit a two page paper (double spaced, 12-point font) explaining why their film must be shot in the style. Chronicle, I feel, is one of the few films where the found footage aspect helped tell the story. I didn’t see any reason why Project Almanac needed to be found footage. I don’t think it fed into any themes or character arcs. You could have told the same story with “normal” camera work.
Tim: I did get to thinking about that. I think some of the GoPro shots, especially when they’re first testing out the time machine on RC cars, are kind of cool. And you get the camcorder bit that kicks the whole plot off, where David sees himself in old birthday party footage. But I don’t think that any other parts explicitly needed to be found footage. But I actually felt mostly the same way about Chronicle, which I think we’re comparing Project Almanac to not only because it’s the most memorable recent found footage example, but also because of the setting. Dane Dehaan’s character in that movie uses the camera as a defense mechanism, I guess, but I though even that ended up a bit needless.
Rachel: I agree that it worked for Chronicle based on character motivations, which were highly lacking in this film. The reasons for Christina to be filming often didn’t make sense to me, especially in the beginning up til the point when David says “FILM EVERYTHING NOW.” So in that regard, I was lost on the found footage front. Where I did appreciate it, however, was in its parallels with the fragility of time and space in which they were working. That might be giving a lot of credit to the filmmakers, but it’s the impression it gave me.
Erik: I actually went into the film not realizing the entire thing would be shot found footage style (my fault for not doing the research, I guess). So when I heard the “FILM EVERYTHING NOW” line I wanted to groan in frustration and laugh at the same time.
Tim: There were definitely a couple of cringeworthy lines to that effect…among some pretty weak dialogue overall. But one of the things I did really like, and Rachel, one of the things you touched on, was the conception of time loops Project Almanac seemed to have. It’s not all that different from any other time travel movie, in that there are almost always dire consequences for seeing yourself, but I loved the feedback loop idea. The movie has, as you said, a sort of technological fragility; I likened it to an electromagnetic wave. Each person’s almost like their own wavelength, and pushing two of the person together is like two waves cancelling each other out. It’s a small detail, but I thought that was really cool.
Rachel: I agree, I also thought that was innovative. I do wonder though why Quinn was able to run away from disappearing out of existence, but that was just one of the many inconsistencies within the script.
Erik: Oh, this movie played fast and loose with its own rules to be sure. Especially when David starts going back in time on his own (i.e. the part where the movie started to completely fall apart). Shouldn’t he have been running into himself in the past at several points? It seemed like he could just replace his past self Hot Tub Time Machine style (oddly a film more consistent with its time travel than this one).
Tim: Are you talking about when he goes back to Lollapalooza in particular? Because that’s one moment that really bothered me. I didn’t mind Quinn escaping his own feedback loop fate because just hinting at the problem gave the rest of the movie plenty of tension and Quinn is kind of fun to have around for the later shenanigans. But when David doesn’t run into a previous version of himself at Lollapalooza, I was scratching my head a little.
Rachel: This feeds into the plot point that most bothered me in the movie, which was the conflict for which the Lollapalooza scene was the catalyst. The entire conflict revolved around his almost absurd insecurity paired with his prejudice that the “hot” girl is shallow and would essentially need to be tricked into liking him. My favorite line in the movie is when Jessie says something along the lines of “maybe I’m the mastermind,” just because of how sadly ironic this seems to be. For a boy genius, he falls apart because of his own social stupidity.
Erik: I guess you could argue that he’s just a teenager, and thus driven by hormones and irrationality. But screw that. Movies (except for comedies) that have to create conflict by making one of their characters suddenly act like a moron are just employing lazy writing. And there were other opportunities for conflict the movie could have run with. I was quite surprised they didn’t have someone go mad with the time traveling power – maybe Quinn, drunk on his newfound success and popularity – and cause all kinds of chaos. Admittedly, that would have made it even more like Chronicle, but I thought it would have made more sense than David is an awkward, horny, dumb, smart nerd.
Tim: Ok, now I want to see a Quinn-based pure comedy version of Project Almanac. Part of the problem you’re getting at, though, is this very strict structural division that seems to be going on. The gang goes crazy having fun, and then David gets into trouble. Which, truth be told, I kind of enjoyed because, yeah, having a time machine would be awesome! I’ll admit that backloads a lot of the drama, though. That division of almost comic middle apart from the strictly dramatic final act bug either of you?
Rachel: While watching, this didn’t occur to me so plainly. However, looking back at it, the two segments (the fun and the drama) didn’t have a smooth transition, and I felt that the endless fun section did take away from what they could have potentially done with the plot. That being said, I enjoyed seeing them get up to some good natured trouble. It felt genuine for a high school-based film. That is how I would want to use a time machine that was limited (weirdly) to the recent past.
Erik: It was a case of what you might call mood whiplash. I could picture the screenwriter typing along: “And then they go back to the 1980’s and try some Crystal Pepsi- Crap! I forgot to create conflict! Okay *panics* uh, David screws up, he’s a suddenly a moron, no more fun, third act here we come.” It’s a sign of bad writing when I can see that someone’s trying to create a certain mood or tone. Suddenly everything feels less fun because it has to be. You can see the puppeteer pulling the strings. I’m no longer watching a movie, I’m watching a bunch of actors recite a script.
Tim: I will say this to Project Almanac’s credit: despite the harsh change in tone, it still manages a little bit of bite when it comes to the broader ideas it’s trying to play with. There’s a definite sense of the consequence of action here. As corny as the scene at Lollapalooza is (the one where David doesn’t kiss Jessie), it’s at least thematically effective in talking about the significance of taking action in the here and now. The end of the movie essentially wipes out everything that came before, and needed to simply because David screwed up so badly in a single moment.
Erik: I do agree, actually. This movie had some good ideas behind it, and a clear idea of the story it wanted to tell. My complaints about the found footage stuff aside, I was actually into the movie very much until the tonal shift. This wasn’t a bad movie from start to finish, I just think a couple of big mistakes were made along the way – and sometimes a couple is all it takes to derail an entire film. Contrast that with something like Blackhat, which didn’t seem to have any idea of what it wanted to be, didn’t try anything interesting, and ended up being a bad experience through and through. So there’s my praise: Project Almanac, it isn’t Blackhat.
Rachel: Project Almanac, I agree, did have its clear thematic goals – even to a fault at times. From the moment about five minutes into the film when Christina says to David, “You never take risks,” I could see the film’s entire trajectory. Also, speaking of the movie wiping out everything that came before, I was expecting for it to do in its entirety. I definitely did not buy there being the extra camcorder in the attic at the end.
Tim: So was that a net positive or net negative for you? I kind of liked the idea that something was still different even if everything else was reset. It felt to me a little – a little – like the spinning top at the end of Inception.
Rachel: I can see what you’re saying, and that would feed into the fragility of time and space once again; however, I feel like the filmmakers lucked out on that front.
Erik: I did not get that ending. Did David leave the camera intentionally so his future self wouldn’t make the same mistakes he did? Because I thought by the end he was in this defeatist mentality where you shouldn’t meddle with time ever. If not, why did he still let his dad go off and die? Did he just forget to destroy the camera? If so, he’s even more of a moron than I first gave him credit for.
Rachel: For me, it is unclear if that is the case – whether he left it for himself somehow, or it just luckily appeared there. I did get the sense that he was in that defeatist mentality, which also made it confusing for me when he went up to Jessie at the lunch tables and said what he said to her, as if he were going to start something similar again, or show the world what happened. As for his father and that plot point, I don’t understand either.
Erik: You know, I just remembered this film had several plot threads that just seemed disappear as the movie went along. The biggest is David’s idea to go back and save his father – which could have been a much more exciting direction to take the story – but also (and forgive me if I’m mistaken about this) there was a relationship developing between David’s friend Adam and his sister that never got acknowledged after Lollapalooza. Maybe this movie made more than a couple of mistakes now that I think about it.
Tim: Yeah, that’s kind of in the background the entire time, but nothing ever happens with it. Sort of like the comedy version of the movie based on Quinn, I think there could have been a more found footage-excusable version that focused more on Chris and Adam.
Erik: Maybe Project Almanac started off as a first draft of Project X (the 2012 comedy).
Rachel: I can definitely see it pulling elements from that movie, as well as Chronicle, and attempting to make it something new. For example, when his friends comment something like “uh can we go to that RAGER next door,” which I actually chuckled at, and appreciated what I felt was a nod toward Project X and other typical teen films of that nature.
Tim: And that, maybe even more than the found footage problems, is the best way to sum up my grumblings with Project Almanac: it was another super high-schooly teen movie. BUT – we haven’t touched yet on my favorite sequence from the whole movie, which is going to contradict me a little because it plays right into that complaint. So as we wrap up with any final thoughts, let’s also get your best – or if you’re feeling pessimistic, worst – moment from Project Almanac. For me, it was the sequence where Quinn keeps going into science class for the test because he keeps screwing it up. It’s dumb, but it was the right kind of dumb for me. I laughed.
Rachel: Three words: “I’m everywhere, bitch.”
Erik: I can’t remember the exact words, but they went something along the lines of, “Your father looks so much like you.” I thought we were in for some Robert Heinlein/Futurama time travel incest insanity. It would have made the movie a bit more memorable (not necessarily for the right reasons).