The combination of high concept sci-fi and romance in film is nothing new. The Adjustment Bureau is the most recent example that comes to mind but there are countless entries into the mashed-up genre over the years, despite the seeming clash in ideas. As a sci-fi nerd, however, I find that more often than not this combination fails to impress or turns out downright awful, usually because the two elements fight for attention and end up smothering each other in the process. Safety Not Guaranteed, then, represents a real achievement, entering into a fraternity of select films that tell a worthwhile romantic story while displaying a healthy respect for the science fiction that brings the pair together.
The classified ad read, “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” When her co-worker Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) pitches the ad’s creator as a potential story for their magazine, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an apathetic intern who has yet to find her passion, volunteers to come along for the ride. After arriving in the small town from which the ad originated, they soon track down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the eccentric but harmless man who claims to have built a machine capable of taking people back in time. Posing as an interested partner, Darius inserts herself into Kenneth’s life, working with him to prepare for the journey while simultaneously gathering information for the magazine expose, all the while believing that Kenneth is crazy. But as the date of their trip draws near, Darius finds herself smitten by Kenneth and is forced to decide once and for all whether she believes in his reality or not.
Safety Not Guaranteed has a definitive quirky streak that runs through every aspect of the film and it could certainly find a place among Wes Anderson’s stable of films. It is not, however, defined by its quirkiness the way many Anderson films (and their copycats) are. Instead, Safetyuses the quirkiness to set the table for its assorted storylines and then proceeds onward with a fairly straightforward set of narratives. In essence, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly use a taste of weirdness to lure the viewer in to the romantic relationships of each of the main characters as well as the sci-fi undercurrent. I can see how this could turn some viewers off but it worked for me, partly because the setup is excellent and partly because of the strength of the characters and the actors who play them.
There are very few movies of late that feature characters with such high level of likability as what you’ll find in Safety Not Guaranteed. Darius exhibits a gloriously apathetic approach to life that goes hand in hand with the dry, sarcastic sense of humor that Plaza specializes in. But from the outset it is apparent that she is capable of more if only she could find something to liven her up. This spark in her eye, as it were, makes her transition all the more satisfying and gives a little weight to Plaza’s performance (for which she has already won an award or two). Duplass, on the other hand, is exceedingly earnest in the best way possible. Above all else, regardless of whether or not he turns out to be crazy, Kenneth is a believer and that quality is brought to life wonderfully. His wounds from the past drive the sci-fi portion of the film but it is presented in such a genuine, even simple way that I couldn’t help but root for him. It is an odd dynamic that exists between Plaza and Duplass but that sort of mismatched weirdness works well within this film. Even Johnson’s character, who is more than a little scuzzy, exhibits a vulnerable honesty that makes him much more likeable than I expected in the early going.
As the film progresses and the various side plots thicken, the sci-fi element of Safety Not Guaranteed
becomes less visible but is never put aside entirely. For some sci-fi films it is important to believe in the science at its core in order to accept the film but Safety Not Guaranteed
is structured in such a way that allows the viewer to appreciate the sci-fi without becoming overly burdened by reality. In this way, the question of whether or not the science for time travel will come through plays almost like a will-they-or-won’t they from a sitcom, a facet of this film that I quite liked. All told, this is a charming, somewhat unique little film that I absolutely fell in love with.