The Saturday night opening-weekend screening of “Project Almanac” was without a doubt the talkiest, chattiest movie I’ve ever sat through — and that’s a title that takes some serious wrestling to win, after something like 500 movies in theaters. I saw a “Friday the 13th” reboot on Valentine’s Day, in a theater where shoddy parents on bad dates brought yapping children. I’ve seen multiple “Paranormal Activity” flicks, full of self-deputizing narrators. I once jumped over the back of my seat to shush yappy teenagers in the Gus Van Sant “Psycho” remake; I was 18 at the time, and the shock of seeing me leap back a row and sit down startled one 15-year-old to blurt to me, “Sorry, sir.” I saw “Toy Story 2” at the cheaper-than-a-babysitter dollar theater, packed with tots. During a showing of “The Others” in Miami Beach, eight cell phones rang over the two hours.
The “Project Almanac” showing just blew them all away. It was populated with pockets of teenagers talking throughout this sucker — but almost charmingly, somehow, because they were talking about the movie. This wide-eyed, fast-paced, found-footage junk-food flick about a group of teens who find a nearly finished time machine and DIY it to life scarcely needs dialogue anyway. The tall blond boy (Jonny Weston) just got into M.I.T. and needs a science idea for a scholarship. He rummages through his deceased nerd father’s notes and stuff in the attic and finds an old videotape of his 7th birthday party … where he catches a glimpse in the background of his present-day self, wearing his current clothes. Sufficiently spooked, he and some cronies wind up in dad’s basement lab, long left fallow, and dig up plans for his military-commissioned time device.
They sacrifice an Xbox and a score of car batteries on the way to willing it to life, and soon manage to dial themselves short distances through time (actual discarded title for this film: “Welcome to Yesterday”). This is actually a masterstroke of plotting. You can’t see dinosaurs and you can’t kill Hitler (unfortunately, as that mission is “time travel 101,” one character says). What you can do is win the lottery and pass chemistry. Small beer, on the grand scale, but leave it to teenagers to conflate the picayune with the epic.
When our hero nerd wants a do-over on a particular moment, the bad choices begin, and we see hubris and monomania develop. At one level, “Project Almanac” plays as an addiction film, with a protagonist chasing a fix and forgetting the first law of holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging. The audience, loquacious throughout, kept chewing over plot points and what-would-you-do scenarios even into the lobby and onto the street. Don’t let anyone tell you kids these days can’t multitask. They hear everything even when they can’t shut up.
High cinema, or even “Back to the Future,” this ain’t. But like a can of PBR or a cab ride to the airport, it doesn’t need to be profound to do the trick. There’s something to be said about a movie whose characters, among mentioning “Terminator” and “Groundhog Day,” at one point are casually watching “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to get a feel for how they should travel through time. That movie came out in 1989, by the way — ancient history for those who can’t go back further than a few days at a time.