As a bearded hysterical Matthew Fox once said “We have to go back.” A simple phrase that proved inexorably memorable. The wish to go back in time — to relive the better days to prevent the worse — is universal. It’s a wish fueled by nostalgia and regret that makes up such a sorrowfully large component of man’s core. And it’s a wish that is right at the center of Safety Not Guaranteed a movie that tries very hard to do justice to its powerful theme.
Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut attacks the idea from a few different angles. In fact quite literally. The story opens with the abrupt introduction of a so-called nutcase (mumblecore king Mark Duplass) who is planning a voyage back to the year 2001 via a time machine he has allegedly built. Of course no one believes him. Not the sour crass magazine journalist (New Girl's Jake M. Johnson) whose job it is to chronicle the missions of this lunatic. Not his timid lonely med-student tagalong (Karan Soni). And of course not the center of the whole expedition: Darius (Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza) the listless friendless post-grad magazine intern who is plagued by overt apathy and a bridled remorse over her mother’s untimely death several years earlier. Not at first anyway.
Darius agrees to the out-of-town excursion primarily to escape monotony. Arnau jumps on the bandwagon to bolster his résumé but also to stay close to Darius on whom he has a very obvious and very uncomfortable crush. And Jeff (Johnson) is actually on a quest to reunite with an old summer flame from his much happier teen years. All three characters embody the theme being driven home by Safety Not Guaranteed as does — most of all — aforementioned oddball Kenneth (Duplass) whose journey back in time revolves around his own attempt to recapture the lost love of a former girlfriend.
The pulp is there. The problem is the film never truly figures out how to showcase its internal. We never learn enough even subtextually about Darius to understand or appreciate her character entirely. The same goes for Kenneth — who yes is supposed to be mysterious but is also supposed to be sympathetic. Instead he remains at the same distance from the audience throughout the film; we never really figure out if he’s off his rocker or someone who just looks at the world differently.
The film is often a fun one: it serves as a playground for traditional ideas on the well-tread territory of time travel. Time travel tropes are tossed around with a quirky humor and an emotional investment in the genre the way real world friends might discuss the hypothetical. All starring parties and their supporting cast members are endearing and funny. But the emotionality never hits the stride it seems to be going for.
We know that the stories of Darius Kenneth Jeff and Arnau are supposed to be painful. Unfortunately not enough attention is paid to building these people’s heartbreaks. They come off as a bit superficial. As such their separate emotional storylines linked only in spirit come off as a bit disjointed.
At points the film’s stars’ performances seem like less gripping versions of their television characters. The most winning scene actually comes from the cast newcomer Soni whose grief-stricken Arnau could well hit a nerve for a few viewers. Admittedly some might fault Soni and his character for borrowing from the well of racial stereotypes — but that argument aside his personal climax makes his character the movie’s most memorable strength.
Safety Not Guaranteed has plenty of good in it and will most likely keep a willing participant entertained from beginning to end. It’s fun funny and conducive to the plight of the nerd slacker artist or whatever type of outcast group you might fall into. Unfortunately the film never climbs to the point of being as powerful a movie as its contents could justifiably make it. To put it in apropos time travel terms: you can muster up as many gigawatts of linoleum as you can find but without that flux capacitor at the center you’re not really going anywhere.