Movie review by Greg Carlson
Written as a gag by John Silveira for Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997, a short classified advertisement read, “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” The intriguing invitation, Tweet-like in its brevity, bounced around on television and the Internet before Silveira signed a contract allowing the idea to be made into a feature film. The resulting movie capitalizes effectively on the premise, and writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow, aided significantly by their principal cast, construct a mostly appealing blend of science fiction and romantic comedy.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” begins with the familiar conundrum of bright, under-employed twenty-something Darius (Aubrey Plaza) drifting into an undefined future. As an intern at Seattle Magazine, Darius volunteers to accompany fellow underling Arnau (Karan Soni) and coarse, chauvinistic writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) to track down the time travel classified author for a feature story. Staking out the small post office while Jeff seeks out the company of a long-ago girlfriend, Darius eventually makes the acquaintance of Kenneth (Mark Duplass), perfectly serious about his offer and cautiously optimistic that Darius might qualify as a worthy time travel companion. The viewer assumes that the skeptical Darius won’t buy into Kenneth’s plan, but the more time they spend together, the more Darius opens up to her new friend.
Plaza, whose blistering sarcasm, well-timed eye rolling, and trenchant retorts arc and crackle in a way that brings to mind Barbara Stanwyck, is a welcome big screen presence, but Darius often feels underwritten – reacting to the questionable behavior of the men in her orbit rather than being allowed to make the decisions and take the actions that drive the movie. Even with its wild concept, which eventually culminates in a gutsy conclusion that will delight some and disappoint others, “Safety Not Guaranteed” meanders with a leisurely self-assurance in its characters, but Connolly and Trevorrow withhold a great deal of personal information about them in favor of mildly comic training montages and the well-worn romantic comedy device in which Darius’ original reason for befriending Kenneth is positioned as a lie of omission destined to be a shocking revelation.
Conceptually, time travel brings with it a universe of possible story pathways. From “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” to “Back to the Future” and the hundreds of short stories, novels, TV episodes, comic books, and films in between and beyond, the notion of being able to see the future or interact with – and maybe even change – the past surpasses most logical concerns over paradoxes that would arise from the employment of a time machine. Kenneth’s desire to travel to an earlier year in order to prevent something from happening depends on the possibility that history can be altered, but the filmmakers make it clear that their interest is not in refuting the Novikov self-consistency principle but rather in exploring time travel as an elastic metaphor for taking chances, for dealing with disappointments, for coping with loss, for moving forward, and for making the most of the time we have.