Of all the genres I enjoy, I find it most disheartening that time travel has become one of the most repetitive and clichéd. As one of the broader tropes of science fiction, time travel opens almost endless possibilities in storytelling, settings, characters and plotlines – so I’ve never understood why the opportunities are squandered on doing the same thing over and over.
Project Almanac follows the ‘found-footage’ story of five teenagers who discover the blueprints to a time machine in their basement. Against all odds they manage to build it, get it working and survive the journey, despite none of them seeming to have the common sense to tie their shoes. No, really – each of them manages to showcase an incredible amount of stupidity at different points in the movie, to the point where it almost becomes a highlight.
After finding footage of main character David’s (Jonny Weston) tenth birthday party in which he can clearly be seen in the background as an adult, they discover his father left the blueprints for a time machine in the basement and set about building it. After a (not entirely) successful attempt to send back a toy car, they forgo futher safety tests and decide that all five of them should try to go back, together, based on the theory that because one of them can be seen in the video it must be safe for all of them. Surprisingly, none of them are killed and they begin to use time travel for exactly the kind of things a middle-aged writer would believe a group of teenage characters would use time travel for.
And honestly, this is the main problem with the film: the characters. They’re the kind of terrible that we’ve seen a hundred times before, and got sick of after the first one. David is a ‘typical’ nerd who likes a girl, but he’s too shy to talk to her. There’s his two nerdy friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), his ditzy blonde sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) (because someone needs to ask the exposition questions) and of course there’s Jessie herself (Sofia Black D’Elia), who doesn’t seem to have any personality traits of her own, outside of being a love interest. Each of their “arcs” play out exactly the way you expect them to, exactly the way those descriptions brought to mind. Only David gets any kind of development, and even at the end of the film it’s hard to describe how he’s actually changed as a person.
What pushes the movie from bland to awful, though, is its use of damaging clichés, rather than just plain dull ones. Making a tall, handsome teenaged boy out to be a nerd by throwing a pair of glasses on him is dull. Making his two best friends out to be nerds because one is ‘Hollywood Chubby’ and one is Asian reinforces degrading stereotypes and is, unfortunately, only one example of the lazy writing that went into this film. As the film progresses, the main character repeatedly makes terrible, terrible decisions that go beyond ‘that was silly’ to ‘that has made you downright unlikeable’, most notably with his creepy use of time travel to “win” the girl (and, it’s implied, to win over her notoriously boyfriend-hating father). This emotional manipulation is waved away, however, with the girl telling him she’d actually liked him all along, implying that him lying to her, misleading her and manipulating her into a relationship was actually a really romantic thing to do and not the actions of a creepy, abusive asshole.
In a movie where the characters are cardboard cutouts and the plot is a predictable, painful march towards a hamfisted ‘moral’, adding consistent, intelligent science would have been the only way to save it. Instead we get inconsistent time travel as well, with the time travel plot switching between showing stable time loops and heavy use of the ripple effect, implying that the future is 100% unchangeable but also that there are consequences when you do change it. This mixes up two theories of time travel – one that you can change the past/future (which usually comes with consequences) and one that you can’t (which means no matter what you do, events are set and cannot be altered).
The rest of the plot unfolds with equally painful developments: the characters make note of the lottery numbers and go back to win the jackpot, only to find out they filled out five numbers instead of six, meaning they only won the minor prize. They then protest that they can’t redo it, saying “I’m not going to win the lottery twice!” This scene follows (almost immediately) the scene in which the same boy retakes his chemistry test multiple times until he actually passes. These jumps in plot logic become more improbable than the jumps through time, and as the film progresses there become fewer and fewer moments to redeem it.
In a world with those endless possibilities, Project Almanac decided that ‘what would a bunch of middle class American kids do with a time machine?’ is the story that really needed to be told; and as a result we have been given (at best) an incredibly dull, predictable film, the moral of which (there are no second chances/actions have consequences) ends up being overshadowed by a bigger, less intentional moral – don’t leave teenage boys in charge of anything, ever.