Project Almanac (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Fourth year high school student David (Jonny Weston) receives a big envelope from MIT which means he has been accepted to the university. But there is a problem: Instead of getting a full scholarship as he had hoped—after all, he did send a compelling video which shows his raw potential as an aspiring inventor—he had been bestowed only a small fraction. With no way of paying for his education, it appears most opportune that David and his sister (Virginia Gardner) find a key part of a time machine in a secret compartment in the basement. They can go back in time and “win” the lottery.
Written by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, “Project Alamanac” is enjoyable enough to warrant a marginal recommendation. It is very good up until about two-thirds of the way through because it shows what real teenagers would likely do if they were to have access to a time machine: ace a chemistry class, get revenge on bullies, try to win the lottery, attend a music festival. A lot of it is fun and games—until it isn’t. This is where the picture struggles with creativity.
It uses a potential romantic connection between David the brainiac and Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia) the popular girl as the heart of the picture. It does not work for several reasons. First, there is little physical chemistry between Weston and Black-D’Elia. Neither performers are particularly gifted at emoting deep and subtle emotions and so the characters, when flirting, come across as disingenuous, the lines sounding very script-like and cheesy. Third, we do not learn enough about either characters when separated or together. Thus, their possible relationship does not have meat or dimension.
I argue that David could have been a more interesting character if he had been written as someone who did not mind being single. Why would he? He has great friends he’s known since childhood (Allen Evangelista, Sam Lerner), a pretty cool sister, and a very bright future ahead of him. I admired his intelligence, creativity, and fire so I wanted to know more about who is—or who he thinks he is.
Maybe the story would have been more interesting if its emphasis was on the protagonist recognizing his true potential, that if he chooses to, he can make a lasting contribution to the world. In other words, it is unfortunate that the writers did not have more ambition to make this science fiction story about self-discovery. No, eventually it had to be about getting or rescuing a girl. The problem is, every other movie is like that.
Upon the discovery of the critical piece, it is pointed out that the technology is owned by the U.S. government. This sounds like an avenue worth further exploration and it is surprising that the screenplay never gets back to this point again. Instead, the idea that going back in time creates unpredictable rippling effects is hammered into our brains multiple times. Smart screenplays make the point once or twice and expands until full capacity. Here, the story likens that of a balloon only halfway filled with gas—not enough to let the story go somewhere really exciting.
“Project Almanac,” directed by Dean Israelite, need not embody a found-footage style. The shaking of the camera distracts more than amplifying tension. There is no need for unstable camerawork because the material is suppose to inspire a sense of curiosity or wonder. How can we find ourselves in awe when there are very few moments of stillness?