What have we done to deserve another found-footage movie? The tired handheld 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 high school misfits who invent a time machine, is that this 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, the found-footage ploy 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 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 of David’s seventh birthday party. 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 apparatus and immediately get to work building it and, eventually, using it. In a somewhat amusing wink to the audience, the characters keep restating that they have to film everything.
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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There also are a host of just out-of-date references (jokes about films like “Argo” and “Looper” from 2012) that only serve to remind that this movie, previously titled “Welcome to Yesterday,” has been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.
Still, there were some last-minute edits. 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 would 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 with a time machine: ace a failed chemistry test, stand up to a 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 when David gets greedy and tries to redo 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.
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:46