Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012)
About as far away from Timecop as you can get, Safety Not Guaranteed is inspired by an actual newspaper ad posted in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997, requesting an accomplice for a mission to travel back in time. It was a joke on the part of the magazine’s editors, but this film attempts to show us what sort of person would post that ad with utmost sincerity. The story follows Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza), an intern at a Seattle magazine who volunteers to investigate the time traveler on a road trip with writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni). Is the guy wacko, or has he really got a time machine? Well, sometimes the destination isn’t as important as the blah blah blah indie music…
While we’ve got a somewhat intriguing story here, very little of it has to do with the time travel itself. This is more a story about inspiration, belief, and loooooooove or whatever. Indie movies aren’t about love, they’re about “love or whatever.”
Excuse me, I’ve jumped ahead of myself. So our carful of investigators heads off to find the nutjob, but it’s revealed that Jeff is actually using this trip as an excuse for a vacation in Ocean View, Washington, the current home of somebody he wants to reconnect with. I enjoyed how this shapes his character (this is what somebody who’s been interviewing weirdos for a while knows how to work into his schedule by now), even if his quest sometimes feels like a bit of padding to the overall story. Still, it’s the catalyst for Darius to put the sneaky journalism moves on Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), the backwoods survivalist and potential temporal voyager / psychopath.
“Is Judy Hitler your real name?”
What really makes the movie work is that everybody seems to care less and less if Kenneth has really built a working time machine. Darius is far more interested in the amount of passion he has for this “mission.” Since Kenneth is so paranoid, for Darius to get the real scoop, she has to get closer to him and form a bond of trust, as he’s always worried that the mission could be compromised over just one snitch. Eventually, her goal fades away and she’s left learning the life story of a man who excites her, possibly the first to ever do so.
While this blossoming relationship has its charms, it also falls prey to some moments of pure cliché. I’m not the only one who tunes out when a romantic lead character picks up a musical instrument or some headphones, am I? From the first note of whatever the kids are swooning over these days, I just tell my brain, “Oh, she’ll be in love with him three minutes later. What song it is doesn’t even matter. Wake me when it’s time travel.”
“It is currently not time travel, but it IS currently available on iTunes.”
Twee complaints aside, the script is exceptionally well-balanced. Just when I’m starting to get tired of one storyline, a new one comes along. When I think I can trust a character, I suddenly can’t. For example, there is a scene in which Kenneth reveals the year he is planning on traveling to. SPOILS. Skip to the next section if you don’t want this bit of information. He claims to be making this trip for minor personal reasons, not to change the course of history, and the year they must travel to is 2001. I immediately distrusted him; coming from a character so obsessed with martial arts and weaponry, my mind automatically jumped to visions of Kenneth trying to stop September 11th. If this provocative choice of year was unintentional on the part of the filmmakers, I can certainly see that, and Kenneth never once comes close to stating terrorism prevention as his true goal, but Darius has told a series of lies to get this close to such an untrusting person; what’s to stop Kenneth from lying also? This push and pull from multiple characters is what always keep you guessing until the end of the movie.
The third act becomes tense, as some twists could be the result of successful timeline changes, mere coincidences, or blatant lies. Which are they? Do Kenneth and Darius really make it to the past? Was Michael actually an angel? Is prot truly from the planet K-PAX? Why would Keira Knightley fuck Steve Carell? Nurrrrrrrrr…
Finally, thumbs up across the board in this department. The performances are really what work in this movie. Mark Duplass especially succeeds with the tough task of crafting a character who is simultaneously charming and possibly insane. Tweak it too far in either direction, and you get Ryan Gosling or Dwight K. Schrute. Nope. Wouldn’t work here.
Though I would definitely watch Dwight K. Schrute: Clock Puncher.
Aubrey Plaza is once again playing that awkward, aimless sort of figure she’s known for, which sometimes gets on my nerves, but there’s a little more depth to it here. She may feel like simply a character actress in other roles, but she’s got a sweet yearning here that helps sell the story.
Comic relief comes from Karan Soni as Arnau, who is very funny, but unfortunately not terribly necessary to the events of the story. He is pushed to “live a little” by Jake Johnson’s Jeff, a lovable bastard character who remains a bastard and thinks he can turn around this shrimpy intern’s life before he becomes just as bastardly, but this is a chapter in Jeff’s story, not Arnau’s. Either way, it’s great to see them play off of each other.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
- One aspect of the story that bothered me: Kenneth lets Darius know that part of the mission will involve theft. He has already proven that he’s a bit of a gun nut and he could be completely crazy; this doesn’t raise any red flags? At some point, no matter how much a journalist wants to get the story, the safety of others needs to be considered, and Darius going along with this plan changed the tone of the film for me.
- Whether it works or not, the design of the time machine in this movie is wonderfully unique.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
There aren’t many scenes of anyone trying to explain time travel, as Kenneth himself avoids the subject for most of the movie. Instead, many characters have to wrap their head around the parts of Kenneth’s mission that don’t seem to check out. So they make faces like this sometimes…
“Yeah, no, he’s totally nuts. He’s completely crazy, I know.”
As a standalone film, I found Safety Not Guaranteed to be average indie fare, but in the genres of “romantic comedy” and “time travel,” it absolutely can’t be left out. It’s a nice twist on both and should be seen as a welcome addition to the canon. I tend to be a cynic over played out indie film messages of “go live as hard as you can, man,” but the fourth dimension admittedly gets my heart all a-tingly, and these characters reminded me that spending time with other people is the closest thing we have to time travel in our world; if you can’t change your past, affect somebody’s present.
Awwww or whatever.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.