'Project Almanac' Review: A Terrible Movie but Time Travel's Shiny
Project Alamanac is a terrible movie, but it’s also a time travel movie and gets some stuff right, so I’m extraordinarily forgiving, and those sci-fi junkies out there among you will probably enjoy it enough to watch it on Netflix in a few months.
The acting is surprisingly good for a low budget bunch of unknowns, and the five main characters manage to have both a natural chemistry and a texture of personality that makes them feel like real people instead of cardboard cut-outs. And while it starts unconvincingly with a pile of cliches and found footage, and there is a painfully long chunk in the middle in which the characters go to a concert, that really should have been cut by two-thirds, overall the last half hour or so of the movie really makes it all more or less work. That’s normally the opposite for movies like this which start strong and then disappointingly taper off.
So I’ve got a set of pet peeves I need to get on the table, followed by a critique of time travel.
The start of the movie is really bad, and immediately throws off the sort of narrative red flags that make me wish the previews were still rolling. First, it’s found footage, which for the first half hour or so especially is incredibly annoying. Second, it has one of those movie cliché story motivations that are a pet peeve of mine. Protagonist is making a video to apply for an MIT “science fellowship”. Infuriation the first: this only happens in movies because people who write movies apparently have never applied for college or scholarships in their lives. The only thing you would ever submit a video for in any capacity is some variation on film school. The ability to make some homemade video is in no way reflective of the ability to do science. You know what is? Essays, grades, test scores, records of entry in science fairs, i.e. all the things one actually uses to apply for such things.
Infuriation the second: David (our protagonist) gets into MIT but doesn’t get a full scholarship, which means he can’t go to college. This isn’t how going to college works. And getting pissed that movies and television keep having this as a plot hook doesn’t require some obscure knowledge of science, it just requires having gone to college like three fourths of Americans. Movie writers are apparently under the impression on a terrifying and systematic level that you apply to exactly one college, and either you’re rich and your parents pay for it, or you’re poor and you get a full scholarship or don’t go at all. If only David had filled out the FAFSA or applied to a safety school, he never would have had to invent time travel.
Infuriation the third: while I enjoy the fact that they really made building the time machine a function of hard work and actual trial and error experimentation, there is so much movie science idiocy that it makes your brain want to light itself on fire to get clean. First they use car batteries, then they use a battery from a Prius because it technobabbles and recharges itself, but then they need to steal hydrogen because they need it for fusion, and then later buy an experimental battery, and just no, just no, trying to think about their babbling pretend science is giving me Getaway flashbacks.
But my real problem with the movie is the time travel. Basically, there are three sorts of time travel in fiction. One is the really smart kind like in Interstellar or All You Zombies, in which there is only a single timeline, but it is changeable and has already been changed. That is, time travel in which all the apparent paradoxes are only paradoxes in three dimensions, not four, just like knots are paradoxes in two dimensions but solvable in three. These are the sorts in which the protagonists for instance, find a video camera which has video of their future selves on it from the past.
The second one is the one in which timelines are rewritten, whether by parallel-worlds or not. This is the Terminator or X-Men concept of time travel. You go back in time change some stuff, come back forward and you have memories of the old timeline and not the new one.
Then there’s the third one, the “timey-wimey” one (to use a more polite term than just “fucking stupid”), like used in Back to the Future, in which people fade from photographs as you change the past, or you draw a circle on the back of your younger self’s neck and watch it appear on your own neck. I handwave this sort of thing as “magic” instead of “science fiction” because then my brain will lay down and stop whining.
Project Almanac slips back and forth between all three concepts of time travel despite the fact that the three are all mutually exclusive if you want to maintain any sort of logical consistency. It hurts, a day later, and it still hurts the parts of my brain that want stories to make sense.
In any case, Project Almanac has all those frustrations but still manages to be somewhat entertaining. The found footage element ends up being absolutely essential to the ending of the movie, and so retrospectively less annoying. And I found that the ending (which isn’t a twist in any traditional sense) redeems a lot of the rest of the movie, by making you think about what happened, what might happen, and how time travel can be a real metaphor for never really learning from our mistakes.
So, if you are a sci-fi junkie, watch this when it hits streaming platforms. If you’re not, skip it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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