Release date: December 26th, 2012
Running time: 86 minutes
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Time travel is the most exciting science fiction idea that’s ever been created (except maybe bringing back dinosaurs from the dead). It’s no wonder that storytellers are obsessed with the idea of time machines and the endless opportunities for adventure that are provided by whisking characters into the past or the future. If I had a time machine I’d be certain to visit the future and check out how my kids are doing. But often a central concern of the time traveller is about affecting the present by tampering with the past. Would you kill Hitler if you had the chance? How would that impact the world as it is now?
When the characters in Safety Not Guaranteed discuss their reasons for going back to the past, they’re certain of wanting to change things to affect the present. One character says he wishes to go back to 2001 and my mind immediately suspected that the film might mention the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Who wouldn’t want to stop those planes from destroying thousands of lives? But this film ignores the big ideas with no talk of Hitler or terrorism instead focussing on the personal. Would you bring back a lost lover if you could? What about a deceased parent? These are the questions it poses with its personal, character driven take on time travel.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle-based magazine who leaps at the opportunity to investigate who’s behind a classified ad asking for a partner to travel back in time with. Staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and intern Arnau (Karan Soni) make up the rest of the intrepid trio who travel out to a coastal town in search of the ad’s author. Darius is tasked with befriending Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who believes he has built a time machine. Meanwhile Jeff pursues a high school crush and Arnau watches from the sidelines. As Kenneth and Darius grow closer, what started out as a potentially comical story becomes much more, conceivably sinister and certainly more exciting.
Those expecting indie sci-fi in the vain of Primer might shift uneasily in their seats when they realise they’ve been roped into seeing a romantic comedy relationship drama but will likely leave satisfied. Though any serious sci-fi spectacle looks unlikely from the opening scenes, there may be something surprising in store, saved to reward patient viewers. Safety Not Guaranteed at least leaves with a definitive conclusion unlike many indie dramas that leave the audience hanging with their ambiguous open endings.
Indie films this year have been big on cults, charismatic leaders and ambiguous open endings. With Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sound Of My Voice doing the cult thing, and the latter even having a charismatic leader who claims to be from the future, Safety Not Guaranteed leaves out the religious group and replaces it with a single individual who, like Brit Marling’s cult leader, thinks he can time travel. All explore ideas of faith and trust, as well as characters who seek adventure in their lives, whether it be through new relationships, finding a community, shooting guns in the woods or trusting someone they know they shouldn’t.
Mark Duplass as Kenneth is becoming quite the unconventional romantic lead after this and My Sister’s Sister. Charming, funny and sensitive, his character might be a little odd but that just makes him infinitely more interesting than most rom-com leads. He’s endearing enough to ensure there is no tension as to his motives or his intentions towards Darius. Never does he feel like a threat to her or himself and though this is admirable, it does leave the film lacking a bit of dramatic conflict.
The central trio of Jeff and his two interns make for some hysterical relationships. With Darius doing most of the investigating, it’s left to the slightly obnoxious Jeff to give Arnau some lessons in love. Or as he would probably call it: a crash course in crushing chicks. It’s a wonderful performance from Jake Johnson who moves easily between cocksure and crass while still remaining somewhat loveable. His sub-plot romance seems almost to be taken from a different film but is a bittersweet diversion on the theme of loves lost and glory days left behind. It opens our minds to thoughts of what he might do if he could travel back in time.
Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni are equally impressive as the wide eyed interns. Though Plaza’a Darius is less wide eyed and more world weary beyond her years, until she meets and starts to fall for the charismatic Kenneth. Soni on the other hand is like a deer caught in the headlights of Jeff. He stumbles to keep up with the other two and his believable and loveable computer geek innocence make for a tender, touching and often hilarious character to keep things grounded.
It may not be safe to market this film as a sci-fi, though it has some conventions of the genre, but it is safe to say this is a quirky romance with plenty of laughs. It may not be a film that breaks new ground for the future but it certainly has enough new to make it sufficiently different to anything you have seen in the past. Safety may not be guaranteed but the climax promises excitement, adventure and something you haven’t seen before. See it in cinemas otherwise you might regret it and we all know there’s no going back to change the past.
Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.
If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.