Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Project Almanac

If you’ve seen the trailer for Project Almanac, you’ve seen a slightly more coherent, slower-burning version of Project Almanac. The frenetic jump cuts, the exhausting shaky cam, the Now That’s What I Call Alternative Music soundtrack, the bizarre percentage of screen time spent advertising Lollapalooza — everything crammed into the trailer is packed with equal or greater density in the feature-length film. From the opening MTV logo to the closing Michael Bay production credit, its ADHD, angst-pandering flag flew high. This is Back to the Future, set in an Orwellian future where Imagine Dragons have usurped Huey Lewis’ holy throne and Prius is the new Delorean. Welcome to the new age.

As the film opened, I could barely keep track of everything I hated. Where could I begin? The visual style? I wish the “found footage” conceit had died with Cloverfield: every ounce of realism it might have added to this film came with pounds of crushing “we-have-to-explain-why-the-camera-is-still-here” baggage. As if we really needed that narrative device to hold water in a movie where time machines fit in XBox cases. Or why not have a go at the blatant caricatures at the film’s core? Hip White Jock-Nerd who says gibberish like “Dawg, throw the L2 cache in ad hoc mode” to Unhip, Less-Creative Asian Jock-Nerd, both of whom drop backpacks and pass wrenches at superhuman speeds. Unattainable Hot Girl whose sole character growth consists of becoming attainable to White Jock-Nerd. Poor-man’s Miles Teller knockoff, with his “Cool story bro” T-shirt and endless non-sequiturs. Ultra-Regressive Blonde Sister, who doesn’t understand their “geeky” technology and dismisses video footage as “probably, like, a glitch or something.” Or maybe I should just go for the jugular of the entire cliche fantasy — how absurd it is that after only 5 minutes are devoted to overcoming poverty, we get a 20 minute sequence of dancing at a music festival; or why with a past fraught with tragedy, the central event you’d risk the fabric of the spacetime to preserve is a memorable makeout.

As you can tell, I really should hate this movie. But I can’t help feeling it’s not mine to hate. It was meant for me 10 years ago, to whom big concerts felt sacred and high school romance a profound, untouchable thing. While I can’t understand what the kids are blasting on their boom boxes and Walkmen and so forth, I also can’t bring my inner crotchety-old-man to file a noise complaint. Their come-what-may attitude and naive sense of possibility chipped away at my cynical defenses, and a half hour in I was actually having a decent time. A dumb time; but sincerely, infectiously dumb, in a way that I can endlessly tease but not really dislike. Maybe it helps that it teased itself first: with offhand references to Bill And Ted and Looper, and silly conversations about “Killing Hitler”, it was hardly posturing as grand Sci Fi. It just wanted to throw a giant party before the adult films came home from the awards gala. At its best, it captured a genuine thrill of discovery and provided a fun escapist outlet for world-weary teens (or ex-teens with a good enough memory.) And while I’ll grant that at its worst it had less to say than any given Levi’s ad, it said it with no lack of conviction. If you hate the trailer, you’ll probably hate the 106 minute trailer. But if a part of you thought it looked kind of fun, don’t let Rotten Tomatoes rain on your party. The sun hasn’t died. All systems go.

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See my review on Letterboxd