Most people suck at describing themselves. I know someone who calls herself a morning person; I’ve never seen anyone so grumpy in the morning. Some of the most talkative people I’ve ever met identify as shy and withdrawn. I know people with extremely thin skins who consider themselves impervious to criticism. I’ve even met alcoholics who seem to honestly believe they almost never drink.
Project Almanac’s main character, high school nerd David Raskin (Jonny Weston), embodies this conflict. I’d describe him as what Internet feminist circles call a “Nice Guy™.” He initially gives the impression of a goodhearted geek with an aw-shucks demeanor. As the story progresses, we gradually come to see his underlying need to manipulate everyone in his life, even as he spends the entire time declaring his “good intentions.” He spends most of the film trying to work up the courage to pour his heart out to Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black-D’Elia), the woman of his dreams, but it becomes clear that he only sees her through his Patriarchy-infused myopia as a possession.
Unfortunately for everyone, David proves as intelligent and industrious as he acts. He stumbles on a time machine that his deceased father had worked on. He, Jessie, and three of his friends go on a voyage through time to manipulate events to give themselves the perfect lives. This all goes south, however, when David begins to unilaterally alter time to win Jessie’s heart. He ends up unwittingly causing mass death and destruction and driving himself insane trying to fix it all single-handedly.
As a film that clearly takes its title from a reference to Back to the Future Part II, Project Almanac never wastes an opportunity to remind us of its lack of originality. Characters name-drop other time-travel movies constantly, and the plot feels like The Butterfly Effect and Primer for teenagers. The film ultimately does for time travel films what The Town did for Boston crime dramas: it tells a decent story that may not break much new ground, but it passes the time.
Project Almanac tells tells story entirely through found footage. Everything in the film comes from video recordings, mostly captured by David’s overbearing sister Christina (Virginia Gardner). Aside from establishing a motif, the found footage gimmick really doesn’t seem necessary. I’d consider it superfluous to the plot. The characters point out the camera repeatedly, but their apparent attempts to convince the viewer that it helps the narrative never succeed.
A better film would use the camera as an unreliable narrator or integrate the footage into the plot; Project Almanac does a poor job at either. Instead, this storytelling mode feels more like a mechanism to paint over the plot’s (many) weak points or avoid fleshing out details. Any time travel movie will contain a decent amount of repetition; the found footage structure exacerbates this.
To the film’s credit, our five protagonists behave exactly as any high school kids would if they suddenly gained the ability to time travel. They win the lottery, they retry tests until they pass, they attend Lollapalooza… The wish fulfillment aspect of the plot feels surprisingly realistic. It also acts as the only real factor in making this film relatable, particularly to its obviously-teenage target demographic.
Of course, all of this leads into a second act where this playing of God sets off butterfly effects and everything goes horribly wrong. The line between the protagonists manipulating their way to happiness and catastrophes plaguing all of David’s friends feels contrived. The screenplay does a terrible job connecting David’s manipulative behavior with the injuries and catastrophes that ensue. Weston still makes a laudable effort at selling David’s attenuating sanity, though.
All of this builds up to the ending, where the film falls flattest. While the screenplay ends in a way that makes David extremely unlikely to make the same mistakes, we also don’t receive any evidence that he has changed as a character. The screenplay also telegraphs the entire ending, made worse by a mawkish, unconvincing execution.
The ending aside, the film still tells a reasonably engaging, if forgettable, story. The main characters all seem likable, even the sociopath of a main character. The found footage gimmick at least makes it easier to identify with the characters, even if their conflicts sometimes seem forced, even whiny. The camera gimmick doesn’t hide that screenplay still badly needed a few more revisions. In the film’s favor, it has a pro-intellectual worldview; the film depicts science and engineering as fun and rewarding.
I just wish that positive message didn’t end up embodied in a main character who seems to start and end the film with a veneer of passivity masking his belief that the world owes him some vagina.Liked This? Share It!