Ah, February. Hollywood's dumping ground.
I don't know when the tradition of throwing the dogs out in February started, but every year the month is a sad parade of film releases that studios have lost confidence in and just want to get off their spreadsheets. That seems to be the case with Project Almanac, which was filmed in 2013 and then had its release delayed repeatedly until hitting theaters last week. During its prolonged development hell, the film went through four different titles. This is another bad sign.
Not that a February release date or failed branding attempts automatically mean a movie is going to suck. Take Edge of Tomorrow, aka Live, Die, Repeat. It had a catchy, high-concept premise: Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day. But that ill-fated sci-fi thriller was doomed by bad marketing despite being a tightly written, well-acted gem. It wasn't bad, it was just misunderstood.
Project Almanac also has a catchy, high-concept premise. It's a time-travel movie done found-footage style. Back to the Future meets The Blair Witch Project. So far, so good.
We first meet high school senior David Raskin (Jonny Weston) in his video application to M.I.T. Helped by his friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), he's testing out a homemade quadcopter drone. The test goes well before spinning out of control and crashing in a burst of foreshadowing. But it works: David gets into M.I.T.
Unfortunately, David doesn't get enough scholarship money to make it affordable for his single mom (Amy Landecker). David's father (Gary Weeks) was an electrical engineer and genius basement tinkerer, but he was killed in a car accident on David's 7th birthday. Frustrated and heartbroken, David goes through his father's notebooks and half-completed gadgets looking for inspiration he can monetize. Instead, he finds his father's 2004 vintage video camera with the tape of his ill-fated 7th birthday party still inside. When he watches the tape, he finds something startling. In a few frames of the party video, there's an image of a figure that appears to be 17-year-old David.
With his camera-toting little sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) in tow, David, Quinn, and Adam set out to solve the mystery. Their investigation leads them to a hidden compartment underneath the floor of the basement where they find a package, presumably hidden there by David's father, containing some mysterious electronics and a set of blueprints for Project Almanac, a "temporal relocation" device.
David becomes obsessed with reassembling his father's time machine to save him from the fateful car accident. On the night of a crucial test, he and his friends hijack the battery pack of a Prius belonging to a popular girl named Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), on whom the bashful David is crushing. The experiment works, and the five friends embark on adventures in time, where they change their own present for the better in predicable ways, such as winning the lottery. But naturally, their temporal experiments start to unravel.
The sci-fi elements at the core of Project Almanac have been combined to make good time travel stories since the 1930s. But those underpinnings can't redeem its slipshop execution that begins with the miscasting of the lead. The good looking Weston is simply not believable as a geek who can't talk to girls. It doesn't help that the dialog is terrible. The film has such little faith in its audience that when the lights go out, someone announces: "The lights went out!"
But it is the horribly botched found footage aspects that doom Project Almanac. Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity work because the filmmakers commit to the conceit. The image quality in those films is intentionally, even artfully, shoddy. Project Almanac wants to have its cake and eat it too, with both iPhones and 10-year-old cameras shooting pristine, if incredibly shaky, high-definition video. Even worse, in an attempt to simulate an old, on-camera microphone, the sound has been tweaked with compression that emphasizes the most excruciating high-end frequencies. The scratchy sound of hands fumbling over a microphone, familiar from a million poorly shot YouTube videos, was added to simulate the camerawoman hitting the start/stop button. And it happens between Every. Single. Cut. Project Almanac has the worst sound mix I have ever heard in a Hollywood production, and it makes the film's 106-minute running time practically unbearable.