RIORI Presents Installment #207: Dean Israelite’s “Project Almanac” (2015)

The Film…

The Players…

Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-d’Ella, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista and Virginia Gardner.

The Plot…

When teenage David stumbles upon late father’s time travel tech, he and his buddies head to the past to get an edge on their future. Of course it doesn’t take them long to figure out that when you fool around with the timeline the future won’t turn out like you hoped it did.

The Intro…

Hey, welcome back.

I’m cutting The Rant in two this week for Project Almanac, because the movie addressed two very significant yet disparate genres. First, the found footage movie, and second the classic sci-fi device of time travel. Neither have the twain ever met before as far as I know, and both have unique angles to approach. That and the longer I thought about it I could not figure out some sort of segue between both ideas. So I kinda cheated here.

Sorry and oh well. Now please pay attention, please.

The Rant, pt 1…

Hey, welcome back.

Today we’re going to dismantle a relatively modern movie genre: the found footage film (heretofore known as FFF). I say relatively because before the turn of the 20th Century there was no such genre. At least not as we know them today. Prior to 1999 the closest movie style to run parallel of a FFF is the oft-overlooked case study-as-entertainment, the docudrama. A sort of half breed movie that is based on fact, but steeped in fiction. A film based on/inspired by true events in short. Good examples of these movies are All The President’s Men, The Right Stuff and In Cold Blood to name a few, and most are almost exclusively based on books. Not surprising that, hence the whole docu- prefix. The source material was real. FFFs like to play with reality, whether fictitious of face.

Please, pay attention.

The biggest return on investment movie ever was what I hate to called a game-changer, that so tired a phrase nowadays it makes what really is a game-changer seem trite. The Internet, insulin, nuclear fission and The Blair Witch Project were true game-changers. Well, Witch was not as vital as the other things, but it sure was a sight different than your usual over budget Michael Bay train wreck. It was the definitive FFF, as well as seminal. Blair Witch wasn’t a true game-changer since there was no game before its debut. Sure, there were the twisted one-off “novelties” like Cannibal Holocaust or Coming Apart, but these were too outrageous and histrionic to be taken either seriously or just profane. Docudramas tried to hold your belief that what you were watching was the truth, not based on the truth. With co-creators Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick working with an aglet budget and actually filming with only film film they hit a nerve. What you were watching was the truth, but not real. There’s a difference.

Hey, welcome back. I first caught Witch in its first theatrical run, tempted like my friends were to see what all the fuss was about. Did I like the movie? A distant yes and very hesitant no. The experience was murky. We weren’t sure what we were watching, let alone if it was based on real life events (the directors played very cagey with their limited marketing) or a sham for scares. It was less of a college field study gone horribly awry and more like solving a puzzle. A puzzle fraught with pitfalls and pungee sticks, but still more a mystery than a horror show. To be sure it was creepy, and good at messing with your head, but like with Bruce the Shark in Jaws, the face of terror was the culmination of an hour-plus waiting game. This made the climax all the more disturbing.

It took me a day or two to process the movie. Not appreciate it, per se, but figure out what I had seen. It wasn’t much fun. Unlike when (at this time of writing) caught Top Gun: Maverick in May with my g/f (who has a huge crush on Tom Cruise) and we thought it was awesome. And it was, so much so I had to beat the praises of the flick over my co-workers heads until they promised to check it out and shut me up. I hated the original Top Gun and had reservations about any sequel. I had found the young Cruise a real…what’s the word? Dickhead? This time out a more mature Maverick with a sense of humility was much easier to get behind.

I couldn’t get behind Witch. Not at first. t was a puzzle I had to piece together. Now granted that Witch is a movie lightyears removed from such fun popcorn fodder as Maverick. That movie was awesome leaving me with some of the best fun I’ve had at the cinema in a very long time. Ago Witch was decidedly not fun, which perhaps was the point. I walked away from it baffled, unbalanced and more than a little spooked. I felt like I had spent 90 minutes in a rock tumbler, and the conversations afterwards were more like an autopsy rather than sharing opinions. My friends and I after we saw the movie dissected it more than discussed it. It’s homespun and lo-fi aesthetic was new to us, and we ended up chatting about “What did we just watch?” Like the hapless grad students in the picture we were all unsure about what Witch was trying to tell us. More like taking a final than At The Movies. All that discomfort made the movie all the more sinister. Crude even.

Please, pay attention.

Hey, welcome back. So over the past 20 years since Witch FFFs have earned a niche in Hollywood, albeit one stuck squarely in the boogeyman’s closet. It makes sense. Most scary movies have limited budgets, and FFFs are produced from mere pennies. Return on investment, remember? Kinda like with the original Halloween. That kind of thrift paired with big Hollywood marketing results in well cleaved cubit zirconium. So long as it sparkles. You follow?

Witch‘s success spawned a bevy of imitators in its creepy wake. Some of those flicks were respectable, some demanded Dramamine and some actually quite good. The first Paranormal Activity did a fine job of suggesting a ghost hunt gone horribly awry; the stuff of nightmares. Godzilla nod Cloverfield played great on the classic “fear of the unknown” scare tactic. And of course the proto-FFF Cannibal Holocaust could not but help do its best to make you vomit despite yourself. Hey, gross-out horror porn had to start somewhere. Pass the popcorn.

Hey, welcome back. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood is notorious in milking a gimmick for all its worth. Keep going until its beaten into the dirt. The FFF format has had its fair share of slumming in the name of feeding the fickle maw of audiences. The trouble with Hollywood business logic is when the execs find a new, inexpensive device—like FFFs, duh—to rake in the dollars their motives are based on praying that lightning will strike twice, even if it means going out in a storm wrapped in aluminum foil. When you have non-existent budget and a fairly throughput plot thread there is only so much one can do to “expand the mythos,” if you will.

Good that your paying attention.

All in all what I dig about FFFs is their air of mystery and not about jump scares galore. Intrigue. What happens next? Conventional films often have well drawn out directions to lead you through the story. Unlike plot resolution as reward for movies such as, say, Top Gun: Maverick FFFs credo is getting there is most of the fun, even if the journey will be bumpy and jumpy (camera angles). What the hell’s going on? What just happened? What did I just see? And who the heck cares? Most FFFs are open-ended, which allow your imagination to fill in the blanks. This I suspect is why Witch and others of its ilk are so nebulous. The movie making playbook got tossed into the fire. All the audience has to work with is the ashes.

Not knowing what is going on—the fear of the unknown—is a very potent fear. Not understanding something, where the road my lead, doubting your reality, all of it. It’s pretty tantalizing.

So anyway welcome back. Thanks for paying attention. You may step out of the corner and return to your seat now…

The Rant, pt 2…

Hey, welcome back.

Time travel has always been a reliable, potent sci-fi device. And why not? It invites unlimited possibilities. It also invites potential ruin.

Consider the best films of this pantheon. We have the delightful Back To The Future trilogy, mostly lighthearted and always funny. A nostalgia fest and a story of just deserts. The gooftastic Bill & Ted adventures. Although not a trad time travel tale Groundhog Day is the thinking man’s existential comedy stuck in that inexplicable time loop. Bill Murray starring was key. Despite casting there is always a however.

Time travel tales often echo an Orwellian metric to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. A perfect society free from want and war. And what does “utopia” translate as? Nowhere. A haven like that does not, nor ever will exist. But how does this relate to sci-fi time travel? If you were ever permitted to change the timeline, nothing, nothing good will come of it. It would lead you nowhere. Dystopia is more common in pop culture than any utopia. The former decidedly does not exist, but inferring from More we have plenty of worlds of speculative fiction about time travel that are portents, awful, tragic and far more engaging than completely the ideal senior year history project.

Please, pay attention.

The Terminator series (the first two, at any rate) are prime examples of nasty cautionary tales about technology run amok The original Planet Of The Apes depicts devolution as future, where human are savages and their prior intelligent existence was wiped from the historical record. Heck, even the fountainhead of all time travel stories was HG Wells’ novel The Time Machine translated many times in film describes a savage future, where George Jetson walking Astro on the treadmill could never happen (random fun fact: according to the cartoon’s George was born in 2022).

Welcome back. Chances are that if time travel ever becomes a reality the bold adventurers will do nothing but set some butterfly effect in motion. You know, accidentally f*ck with past events that eventually f*ck up the future. Present. Whenever. After all time is like a river, always flowing forward. Who knows what might happen downstream if someone tries their cast to catch a prize coelacanth?

Are you paying attention? Wake up, and welcome back.

Despite modern pop culture neither Jeff Goldblum nor Ashton coined the phrase “butterfly effect.” It stems from a story written by Ray Bradbury. He was an icon in writing stories steeped in “what if” with a sinister bent, and well removed from More’s musings. None of his best works are warm, comforting tales of communion of humanity in future times. All his sh*t were brilliant, brittle cautionary tales slick with a veneer of humans thinking there were doing the right thing. In a word: wrong. And wrong is quite viral. Endemic even.

“A Sound Of Thunder” was one of Bradbury’s most telling sci-fi short stories, as well one of his most famous. It is also a time travel story, which is also a cautionary tale. In the not too distant some hotshot big game hunter wants to bag the ultimate trophy. He wants to hunt dinosaurs, and the Time Safari company is ready to oblige. Zipping back in time however has a few ironclad rules: hunt only creatures that are known to be extinct in the timeline, do not interfere in the biome that suggests evolution and above all things stay on the virtual path so you don’t accidentally f*ck up said biome which may evolve into the future. And guess what? Our hunter f*cks up, leaves the path and crushes a prehistoric butterfly. You paying attention?

Welcome back. When our intrepid hunter returns to his present everything has changed. Language doesn’t work anymore. Poltics don’t work anymore. Ever the climate doesn’t work anymore. All because he accidentally crushed that ancient butterfly. Ripple effect. Murder and mayhem ensues. The end.

Thanks for paying attention.

Bradbury was not a positive oracle, but his own butterfly effect might have informs Hollywood that dystopian time travel tales sell more tickets. Like the nightly news the tragic scenarios of The Terminator or Planet Of The Apes are more relatable and therefore gain more “ratings.” Why? Because a bleak future could happen suggested by our current state of global affairs. Our nascent dawn of AI could invite Skynet. Genetic shenanigans could make the lower primate kings of the Earth a possibility. Hell, even Wells’ conjectures as metaphor between the discrepancy of rich and and poor could….oops.

If time travel were feasible it would firmly be couched in the present science of modern physics, especially Einstein’s laws of relativity. Time only goes forward, not in reverse. Theoretically if you wanted to fast forward, catch the shuttle to set up a new life with the condos dotting the vista of Mars’ Olympus Mons best back your bags for a one way trip. Cuz you ain’t coming back. Time travel would only be an Autobahn and never a pit stop. Or a roundabout. It would be permanent.

Welcome back. Time travel as I see it—based on more amusing back-and-forth trips Hollywood has projected on the silver screen—is just a pipe dream. The fantasy is always better than the dreary reality. I think that traveling through time would be the ultimate getaway. Like Devo sang: “Go forward! Move ahead!” If you were a time traveler you’d be better off going forward and escape your crap of the now. Example: when my sis got married in 2008 the wedding took place in Puerto Rico. It was the last vacation I ever had. To this day I would love to go back there. Enjoy the food, soak up the local culture and spent every night on a deck chair, a sixer at the ready, Television on my iPod and count shooting stars. Again.

You’re welcome. My moments in PR are never gonna happen again, even if I get lucky enough to visit PR ever again. The past is always past and one’s memory is always smeared with sentiment, regret, smiles and pounding through Facebook’s search engine to find out what that girl got away was up to. (guilty). No wonder going back in time is impossible. It was never there, and through a cracked mirror.

Welcome back to the present. Watch when you step off the present path now…

The Story…

We welcome Dave Ruskin (Weston) a high school senior, techno-geek and MIT hopeful. His dad was a researcher for the government, and hopes the genetics rubbed off. Of course getting into the most prestigious science university in the country looms long in his mind…but good grades doesn’t insure financial aid.

One evening his buddies Quinn and Adam and sis Christina (Lerner, Evangelista and Gardner respectively) venture down into Dave’s basement and uncover some half-finished project of Dave’s late dad. After tooling around with strange contraption they discover it manipulates light, magnetism and…time. Time? Dad created a time machine? If Dave and company can figure how the gadget ticks they could go back in time and change history for the better.

They’ll all teens. More like their betterment.

Scoring winning lottery tickets, scoring the prime VIP treatment at Lollapalooza, advancing their academic acumen and even Dave scoring his crush Jessie (d’Ella-Black) all seem awesome and fun at first, but the inevitable happens. It always happens.

Dave and his friends constant f*cking with the timeline starts making the historical record fray, like not changing the oil. Stuff starts to fracture and the time-busting crew start paying the price.

The future ain’t what it used to be.

Paying attention? Good…

The Review…

Hey, welcome back.

If Project Almanac did anything original, it keenly illustrated how time travel can keep looping in on itself. Continuous repetition of the moments that eventually lead to wreck, ruin and even more distortion of reality. I am reminded of the ep of Star Trek: TNG “Cause And Effect,” where the Enterprise crew are stuck in a time loop, and only through an endemic sense of deja vu they realize their dire situation. Picard and company lost a month in the loop, precious time lost from boldly going.

In addition to the temporal pit stops I’ve never seen a time travel movie so hell bent on demonstrating how altering the timeline can be very, very dangerous. The whole wish fulfillment aspect of time travel—so lighthearted the exploits of Doc Brown and Marty made it seem—with Almanac gets very sour very fast. The diaspora of Dave and friends’ meddling gets ever worse, collapsing in on itself. Mostly thanks to the human factor. Thou shalt not meddle, etc.

As mentioned above time travel is a very risky project. There are myriad films about the peril of screwing with history, but precious few films take it to the next level. This means how the flow of time directly affects a singular protagonist, not the world at large. A few good examples are the anime OVA GunBuster, where our teenage heroine to always out of the present due to her travels in space, where superluminal travel renders her terminally 16 while all she knew on Earth has progressed as always. It’s a very existential story about being alone in a crowd.

Another time travel film is not necessarily about conventional time travel. The Man From Earth was courtesy of sci-fi luminary Jerome Bixby. It tells the story of a man who never ages and has been wandering the world for centuries. The hero tells his friends that “you can’t go home again” because whatever was home is gone, and memories of the past become so blurred that he can’t recall where he “came from.” Again, alone in a crowd. To wit, all of humanity.

But hey, and welcome back. Time loops and deja vu are all well and good to move a plot along. Almanac is also a FFF (with better production value), and certain aspects still stick here, an offspring of the Blair Witch aesthetic. As I said I dig FFFs, but it’s RIORI and I did take issue with Almanac‘s execution. It’s not as scorching as what I had to say about Project X (quite possibly the worst film ever scanned here), but there was something off-kilter with Almanac I feel compelled to mention.

The issue I take with modern FFFs is that the camera effects and angles are almost always at the ready, Reminds me of stalking and/or an invasion of privacy. C’mon, consider the proliferation of social media (duh). Reflecting a FFF it invites too much exposition and jump cuts just don’t work. It reminds me too much that it’s a movie, not an ep of Cops, per se. A heavy point in FFFs is to bewilder, mix sh*t up and leave it up to the audience to figure it out.

You paying attention? Good.

I must also take notice with Almanac‘s execution as a “proper” FFF. It’s pretty busy. There wasn’t enough room to breathe, whereas with Witch et al there were long periods of non-action that allowed the audience to digest whatever the hell what was on screen was going. Despite the rapid fire delivery Almanac still maintained a nice pace, despite the clutter. Most FFFs I’ve seen have a tendency to ramble; obscure the details in order to ramp up the unease. Not so with Almanac. It’s quite fast-paced, if not relentless in cramming as much story into the scrambled script as possible. I took issue with the info overload, but in the endgame it enhanced the bleeding chaos that ran through the story. If you’ve ever been witness to the demolition of a tall building the blasts go off, the structure slowly cants and then kerblooey. A minute stretches into a second and we’re left with rubble. Sh*t can go from 60 to zero in the moment that stretches.

Even though the trad three-structure with Almanac is somewhat absent (this was a FFF after all) what made it work overall was its bottleneck. Every time our time traveling teens try to flip the script, the points on the curve get ever closer. Their many temporal jaunts create more chaos that trying correct the accidental chaos from the last moment. It’s all a downward spiral, and that has the film generates penetrating tension…which only come to a head in the final “act.” It could feel muddled and even deranged, and I can’t lie it really to me for a ride. One that demanded a barf bag, but still.

You paying attention yet?

That’s the catch about time travel. If you want to go back to alter the timeline for the better you’ll end up screwing something else up. Dave and crew learned a hard lesson there. Blame Heisenberg I guess, or the impetuous nature of youth. And they’re all still kids, still impetuous, drugged by power beyond their understanding, and as we already know absolute power corrupts and can be contagious (read: peer pressure and its ills).

Almanac suggested that what would it be like if John Hughes directed a FFF. For the better part of the late director’s filmography he reveled in messing around with teenage misfits existential crisis. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All tales of teens engaged in wish fulfillment  paired against their standing in the world, and neither do the points do cross.

Hey, welcome back.I figure that kind of view is what made Almanac, but barely. I kinda felt the FFF format was at first just a gimmick. Then again would a cautionary tale about about reckless teenage time travel would’ve work if it played it straight? That crazed camera work might’ve been disorienting, but ultimately rewarding in context. Still made my head spin, though.

That being said, Almanac was very effective—albeit blurred—illustrating what real danger could happen with time travel. There was never an end-of-the-world butterfly effect. Instead a more insidious feeling of string theory coming unravelled. The desperation kept getting ramped up to even have me questioning “Where am I now?” Almanac‘s möbius strip of a story was a journey that (almost) had a conclusion. Recall in the final scene where Dave was wearing REDACTED? The end begins with the start.

Again, welcome back. And again thanks for paying attention.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Very interesting. Very dizzying. Somewhat thoughtful. Riddled with scattered allusions that could only happen in a FFF. Where was I?

The (Many) Musings…

  • “Your father would have be so…” Kiss of death.
  • Soundtracks are inessential with FFFs. Silence is golden as a rule.
  • K: “It’s like alien tech.” Sharp.
  • Lightbulb. Metaphor. Got it.
  • “No. I didn’t study. I was building a time machine!”
  • Who the f*ck is holding the camera when?
  • “You ever see the movie Looper?” “God, I love that movie.”
  • Red shirts? Really?
  • “I’ve always wanted to be a getaway driver!”
  • Chemistry. Heh.
  • “When did we get a video camera?”
  • Imagine Dragons? Bruh.
  • K: “You know what this reminds me of? National Treasure. Like the briefcase is a character always changing scenes and moving the movie.” Like I said, sharp.
  • All this to get into MIT. Just call the Pentagon instead.
  • “Time me.”

The Next Time…

Jamie Foxx has a hack license and picking up Tom Cruise is just another fare. He fast realizes he’s no longer the driver. He’s Collateral.