Silver Screen: Project Almanac **
Calling Project Almanac a mashup of Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect seems an obvious and uninspired observation. Then again, obvious and uninspired is the running theme of this semi-competent but supremely lazy sci-fi trifle, which appears to bank on the notion that its target teen demographic won’t remember an eleven-year-old movie starring that weird old guy from the Canon camera commercials of their youth.
Project Almanac’s direst trouble isn’t that it blatantly apes two relatively recent movies, but that it steals the wrong parts from them. From Chronicle we get the found-footage approach that serves as a de facto excuse for low-fi production values and more cheaply integrated special effects, but none of the simmering character drama or the audacious third act. From The Butterfly Effect we get... well, pretty much exactly the plot of The Butterfly Effect, but without the hysterical tone, loopy twists, or the dramatic stylings of noted thespian Ashton Kutcher.
How can we be sure that first-time director Dean Israelite and first-time screenwriters Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan drew their inspiration from those two movies in particular? Because they seem to be the only relevant films the self-aware characters don’t name-check when they stumble upon a time machine. The device was the pet project of David’s (Jonny Weston) late father, a scientist who secretly worked for a military contractor before dying in a car crash on David’s seventh birthday.
The same day that David and his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) find the old man’s time machine prototype, they also dig up a lost video camera with footage from David’s seventh birthday party. In the background of the video David spots his eighteen-year-old self, which means that he’s destined to successfully construct his old man’s final invention and send himself back in time.
With the help of his brainy friend Adam (Allen Evangelista) and their comic-relief tagalong pal Quinn (Sam Lerner), David is able to make the machine work so the whole gang, plus his high-school crush Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), are able to travel a limited number of days or weeks into the past. At first they do what any teenagers would do with such a machine: goof around. They fix minor mistakes in their recent past, play pranks, cash in on the lottery, and go to an Imagine Dragons concert. (Hang on to that time machine, kids, you’ll want to undo the Imagine Dragons concert when you get a little older.)
As is the lesson of pretty much every time-travel movie ever made, you can’t change the past. Our motley crew of moderately priced child actors figures this out for themselves, first when Quinn nearly blips out of existence after encountering another version of himself from a different timeline, and later when their minor alterations of events cause a ripple effect (a butterfly effect, if you will) that leads to disastrous changes in the present. Group leader David keeps trying to double back to the past to reconcile the changes to the timeline, but each attempt at fixing the problem only produces more disastrous consequences.
Except the consequences aren’t that disastrous, at least not enough to generate any thrills. It’s small-scale stuff, even by Project Almanac’s humble B-movie standards. It’s possible to overlook the gaping flaws in the film’s time-travel logic and even the wildly inconsistent application of its found-footage aesthetic, which is dropped in favor of music montages and dramatic reverse shots whenever convenient. What can’t be overlooked is the almost total absence of fun.
This is where Project Almanac suffers most in comparison to its progenitor, The Butterfly Effect, which rivals Plan Nine from Outer Space and The Room as one of the most deliciously awful movies ever made. While Plan Nine and The Room are famous for their sub-amateur production values, 2004’s The Butterfly Effect is a big studio sci-fi drama transformed into a great unintentional comedy thanks to its hothouse absurdity. Its moments of ironic-viewing bliss are almost too many to number: A baby being blown up by a firework, Amy Smart magically transforming into a literal crack whore, former indie darling Eric Stoltz directing child pornography, Ashton Kutcher pretending to fellate a prisoner so he can stab him in the scrotum with a homemade knife, a limbless Ashton Kutcher trying to drown himself in a decorative fountain, Ashton Kutcher doing high-level physics. Really, just lots of Ashton Kutcher. It’s not only hilarious, but supremely rewatchable.
The moral of the story here is that even though the characters in Project Almanac haven’t seen The Butterfly Effect, you definitely should. Perhaps Almanac’s characters never mention it because the two are so conceptually similar that if they were to acknowledge each other’s presence they would cause a warp in the space-time continuum and blip out of existence. For Project Almanac, that wouldn’t be a big loss. It’s barely there anyway.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.