“Safety Not Guaranteed” is the latest entry into the burgeoning genre that I like to call “tangential sci-fi” — that is, a loose collective of films that incorporate certain science-fiction elements to enhance intimate human dramas. It is considerably lighter in tone than its predecessors, which range from the devastating dystopian work “Never Let Me Go” to the human interaction study “Another Earth,” but that doesn’t mean it is any less effective. Using the allure of time travel to tell a story that’s really about the nature of regret and our willingness to believe, first-time feature director Colin Trevorrow creates a work of both humor and intellect.
The film’s protagonist is Darius (Aubey Plaza of TV’s “Parks and Recreation”), a lowly Seattle magazine intern who’s assigned to join two co-workers in spying on a man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who has posted a classified ad seeking a time-travel companion, for a potential story. “This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before,” the ad reads. Before long, Darius goes undercover and approaches Kenneth about being his partner, only to become genuinely interested in his pursuit because she’d like to go back in time to prevent the death of her mother. Further, despite Kenneth’s seeming mental instability, Darius begins to fall for him, no matter how greatly her cohorts mock his wild plans.
Plaza plays a likable variant of the television character she’s famous for — charismatic in a wry, disaffected sort of way. But the real miracle of the movie, both in terms of filmmaking and performance, is Kenneth. Certainly, he’s a funny character due to his out-there nature, but director Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly never glamorize what could very well be serious mental illness — a key failing of many other films that depict people viewed by society as “crazies,” such as last year’s Aussie superhero-comedy “Griff the Invisible.” But ever so elegantly, Trevorrow and Connolly also allow the viewer to like Kenneth without said glamorization, because they are shown him from Darius’ sympathetic point-of-view. Further, the filmmakers fill the movie with hope, always entertaining the possibility that Kenneth really is a genius capable of time-travel. Duplass, displaying acting chops beyond his mumblecore roots, embodies this binary skillfully.
While Kenneth’s time-travel aspirations are used to drive the plot of “Safety Not Guaranteed”–there are scenes of him robbing supplies from a medical research lab and averting capture from possible federal agents–the movie’s human moments are what most define it. Its overriding themes primarily concern expectation vs. reality: how do we deal with life when we are not dealt the cards that we want/need? Darius and Kenneth’s respective reasons for time-traveling ring true to the human condition, and there is also a surprisingly compelling subplot involving Darius’ boss Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) hooking up with an old high school flame who’s nothing like he remembered. Even the stock “comic relief” character, Darius’ fellow intern Arnau, feels authentic because of actor Karan Soni’s home-run delivery. Thus, “Safety Not Guaranteed” earns its stripes irrespective of its face outcome — though it’s worth noting (sans spoilers) that the final scene contains one of the grooviest effects shots ever in a low-budget indie.