The feature directorial debut of Dean Israelite, "Project Almanac" is a time-travel drama where the characters are savvy enough to be intimately familiar with "Looper
," "Groundhog Dog" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," but too stupid to realize that going back in time themselves is about to create a horrifying paradox. Even when things start going haywire and the lead character, 17-year-old science whiz David Raskin (Jonny Weston), keys into this fact, he continues to be so self-involved that it takes him an irritatingly long time before he tries to do anything about it. Not holding up to a moment of scrutiny, the screenplay by Andrew Stark and David Pagan unravels while still playing out. It doesn't help that the film is told in the increasingly tired found-footage mold, the kind that is too slickly edited, too unnaturally written, and used in too convoluted a fashion to buy for a second.
When David is accepted for a physics fellowship at MIT, he is over the moon until he realizes he will only be getting $5,000 in financial aida far cry from the $45,000 he needs in order to go there. As his widowed mother, Kathy (Amy Landecker), prepares to sell their home to make sure he gets to college, David and slightly younger sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) stumble upon a camcorder in their attic that belonged to their late father. The home movie on it is of David's seventh birthday partythe final time they saw their dad before he perished in a car accidentbut their bittersweet visiting of this footage is cut short when they spot something unimaginable: in the background of one of the shots, the grown version of David can be seen passing through, a spectator to his own childhood celebration. Further research into this anomaly leads David and his friends, Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), to another discovery in the basement: a hidden device and blueprints for what looks to be a time machine. With David's dream girl, Jessie Pierce (Sofia Black-D'Elia), soon joining in, the five classmates begin testing out time travel, going back to pass a failed test, give comeuppance to a bully, and win the lottery. The more they flirt with the space-time continuum, however, the more their present-day existence and the world at large start to alter. The changes are initially small but quickly escalate, a butterfly effect that David is not sure he wants to correct if it means losing Jessie as his new girlfriend.
"Project Almanac" is irksome in too many ways to possibly count, and the amount of annoyances that build upabout its aesthetic style, its clunky writing, its grossly irresponsible characters, its rampant plot holes, its confused messages, and its sheer hypocrisyreach towering levels by the end of its overlong 106-minute duration. With the handheld camera forever shooting no matter how contrived the situation, the found-footage device is unnecessary and gets in the way of what could have potentially been an involving, conventionally told narrative. Adding to the artifice, conversations are cut together from multiple angles when there should only be one camera, while the slickly produced soundtrack and music score impeccably play on. The characters, who are set up as fairly intelligent individuals with a knowledge of time-travel films of the past, do not for even a second question the cataclysmic dangers of messing with events that have already happened. Their decision to start going back in time is self-serving to a fault; they do not want to better the planet in any way, they only care about cheating in order to procure heaps of cash and material possessions.
Lead protagonist David is the guiltiest party of the bunch, a guy who is an ace at physics but an idiot when it comes to everything else. Jonny Weston (2015's "Taken 3
") does his best with the dopey script he has to work with, but he is miscast, too classically good-looking to pass for a high school science geek. David is supremely ignorant when it comes to relating to Jessie, a girl who is pretty, sure, but also down-to-earth and clearly reveals that she likes him right from their first scene together. Even as he gets to know her, though, it is not enough for him to see her as more than an object to manipulate. By the time Jessie confronts him about this very thing, the damage has been done and he has proven to be an ego-centric misogynist who, frankly, doesn't deserve her. Of all the actors, Sofia Black-D'Elia comes off the best as Jessie, despite, as with everyone, being written as a puppet to the dumbed-down narrative who clearly is smarter than how she has been conceived. The rest of the characterspals Quinn and Adam, and sister Christinaare virtually interchangeable, lacking individual personalities and nuance. When the quintet sit on a hillside at a Chicago music festival, their arms around each other as David says, "We're best friends, man, we're best friends," it is a moment so forced and cornball it is painful to lay witness.
"Project Almanac" builds in intensity in the third act as David's here and now spins out of control, but it takes far too long for him to experience this awakening and come to his senses. Without revealing what happens, his answer to righting the wrongs that have occurred introduces a new round of unanswerable plot discrepancies, exhibiting just how little the makers understand the ramifications and circular conundrums that come with time travel. And then, adding insult to injury, the woebegone final scene destroys once and for all any chance of the film imparting valuable wisdom upon the viewer. By the end, David has learned absolutely nothing from what he has gone through, and the last shot leaves things on a note that is supposed to be stirring and upbeat but instead is fraudulent and unsettling. It is the final slap in the face from a film that is as clumsy and duplicitous as it is thematically obtuse.