Aug 17, 2021
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed has all the makings of your typical quirky indie, except this one has a touch of time travel to get its message across. It’s also part of the relatively new genre of movies (which appears to include just this, Bad Ass, and the upcoming Grumpy Cat movie) based on internet memes. In this case, the inspiration is a classified ad originally published in 1997 as a prank by magazine writer John Silveira (who gets a brief cameo in the movie), which later became a viral phenomenon when it was shared far and wide on the internet.
Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly extrapolate an entire fictionalized story based on this ad, where you’re never really sure until the very end if the supposed “time traveler” is a nutcase or actually has a working time machine. It’s an intriguing premise, but without the hook of the internet-famous ad, it’s doubtful that many people would have heard or cared about this sporadically funny and rather unassuming film.
Aubrey Plaza plays Darius Britt (as an indie lead, she’s required to have a weird name), a recent college graduate who’s telling us her pathetic life story during what turns out to be the worst job interview ever. Darius is a cynical recluse who’s desperate for a job, and the only thing she’s found so far is an unpaid internship at a Seattle magazine working as a gofer for a bitchy boss (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
At one of the magazine’s pitch meetings, a writer named Jeff (Jake Johnson) brings up a classified ad placed by someone supposedly looking for a companion to travel back in time with him, and suggests writing up a lighthearted article about whoever’s behind it. This instantly piques Darius’ curiosity, and she volunteers for the assignment.
Jeff, Darius, and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni) travel to Ocean View, Washington (instead of the real-life ad’s Oakview, California) to do a little investigating. Once the group gets to their destination, Jeff decides to blow off the assignment to go track down a long-lost high school fling who happens to live nearby. And with Arnau otherwise occupied with his laptop, Darius takes things into her own hands and discovers the whereabouts of the guy who posted the ad, a bemulleted, paranoid grocery store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass).
With this information in hand, Jeff sets up a meeting with Kenneth, pretending to answer the ad, but Kenneth is immediately suspicious of him and refuses to talk. So, the team quickly concocts Plan B, which is to use Darius’ feminine wiles to win over the would-be time traveler.
Darius ends up making an instant, although awkward, connection with Kenneth. As the two begin to spend more time together, they both end up letting down their defenses and forming a friendship. Darius admits to having regrets around her mother’s death and wishing she could go back to change things, while Kenneth wants to go back in time to save his girlfriend Belinda, who died in a car accident.
With her cynical wall broken down, Darius starts to further indulge Kenneth’s time travel fantasy. The two even break into a scientific facility to steal lasers for the alleged time machine. But it’s around here where Darius realizes that Kenneth isn’t just paranoid, and there are actually government agents spying on him. Up until now, she assumed he was just delusional (lovably delusional, of course), but slowly she begins to think he might be for real.
But then Jeff finds out that Belinda, the woman Kenneth supposedly wants to go back in time to save, is actually alive and well. After Darius goes to have a chat with Belinda (Kristen Bell), she gets the lowdown on Kenneth and becomes convinced that he really is just a lunatic.
Darius confronts Kenneth about his ex-girlfriend, the mission, and the agents following him. He hears about the ex-girlfriend’s sudden existence, and tries to reassure Darius that this is simply proof that their upcoming mission to the past is going to be successful.
Kenneth then spots Jeff, and realizes Jeff and Darius were working together this whole time, and feels betrayed. So he takes off, saying he’s going back in time alone.
Darius runs after him, and it turns out he really does have a time machine, which is sitting at the docks all powered up and ready to go. She gets in the machine just as the agents are closing in. She and Kenneth clear up their differences, and then the two disappear along with the machine in a big CGI bubble.
While the premise of the movie involves a few interesting sci-fi concepts, they’re really just a minor aspect of the story. And apart from Kenneth giving Darius some lessons down at the shooting range, there’s nothing in the way of action. For the most part, Safety Not Guaranteed is a rather talky romantic comedy with some scattered references to time travel thrown in here and there. The movie is a pretty low-budget, low-key affair, so don’t expect any moments that are going to blow your socks off.
The film does a good job with character development, and these do feel like real people in real relationships. Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is of the pretty mild variety, where you won’t be laughing out loud very much. At times, it feels more like an extended episode of a sitcom.
It’s obvious why they included the subplot of Jeff seeking out his old high school flame Liz (Jenica Bergere); it fits into the movie’s themes of regret and getting a second chance at things you messed up on. But other than the thematic connection, Jeff’s romance (which takes up at least a good third of the film) has nothing to do with Kenneth and Darius or time travel.
There’s a whole involved thing about how Jeff is disappointed that Liz is heavier than how he remembers her, and because of that, he fears making a commitment to her, and it feels like a subplot from a totally different script. There’s even a bit where the virginal Arnau, who doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time in the movie, learns to feel confident and finally get a girl.
Mixing sci-fi with typical romantic comedy plot points is a fascinating idea, but this movie barely qualifies as sci-fi and leans a lot more towards the rom-com side of things. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except the comedy just isn’t that funny.
And when the film attempts to shift gears and suddenly become serious, it can’t quite pull it off. There’s a completely straight-faced scene where Kenneth serenades Darius by playing a song on his zither. Yes, a zither. And no, this isn’t played for laughs.
On the strength of this movie alone, director Trevorrow was picked to helm the upcoming Jurassic Park sequel Jurassic World, which is a bit mystifying, since Safety Not Guaranteed mostly looks like a student film with a bigger-than-average budget. And as far as micro-budget indies go, it’s a decent effort, but it isn’t anything spectacular for sci-fi fanatics.
I would certainly be intrigued to see what Trevorrow might do in the future in the area of character-based relationship dramas. But when it comes to an effects-heavy sequel to one of the highest grossing movies of all time, I’m not sure if the job should be left to someone who, like his time-traveling protagonist here, has “only done this once before.”
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]