Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) directed by Colin Trevorrow is one of those rare films that can capture both the disappointments, heartbreaks, and joys of the real world and fuse it with science fiction and the magical unknown. It is the perfect amount of quirkiness, humor, and emotional punch; the second you are getting comfortable the story changes and makes you question everything you have seen all over again. That is another part of its charm, you never quite know where the story is going and you don’t want to. This is very much one of those “the journey is the destination” type films.
Safety Not Guaranteed is the story of 3 reporters, well one reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and his two interns Darius and Arnau (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni), who are writing a story about a want ad found in the local paper. The add reads:
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
They want to know the story behind the ad and to see if the guy is completely crazy or on to something. At least that’s what Jeff tells his editor. The real reason behind his trip is self serving, he wants to reconnect with his first love Liz. While he searches for her, Darius finds and befriends Kenneth, the man who wrote the ad and begins training to help him with his mission of going back in time.
The premise may sound a little out there, but then again so is the film. I am also purposely not giving too much away because it is better going into this film knowing little or nothing at all. From start to finish it is an engrossing journey about belief, in yourself and in others, and the desire to make things better in any way possible. You don’t know what to believe about any of the film while watching, but you so desperately want to believe something.
The way Safety Not Guaranteed is shot recalls memory or a memory you wish you had. Watching is like recalling summers gone by, there are montages set to just obscure enough pop music featuring dappled sunlight and smiling faces and campfires. The is a
sense of nostalgia and a longing for time gone by while at the same time the desire to start something new and adventure into the infinite abyss. An ending and a beginning all at the same time. It is a film that feels lived in. The one scene that keeps playing in my head features Jake Johnson’s character riding a go-kart with the camera pointing at him. The range of emotions that flicker across his face is one of those powerful “I’ve been there moments” and it is scenes like that one that keep this fantastical story planted firmly on the ground.
The performances also add to the overall authenticity of the film. Safety Not Guaranteed could have easily gone into mocking or sarcastic territory with characters serving just to make everything a joke. Aubrey Plaza, who is my spirit animal, never lets that happen. There is a sincerity to her performance, a reason behind every eye roll and snappy comeback. She conveys so much when she is not speaking as well; her large and expressive eyes say so much about what her character is thinking and feeling. Jake Johnson’s performance is good, just not on the same level. I was happy for once to not see him playing the cute, capital N Nice Guy of the film because we’ve seen him do that before and while we might love him for it, it’s nice to see his range. His character has good development throughout the film and he does find some way to infuse his nice guy charm into some aspects of his otherwise jerky character. Mark Duplass is perhaps the most important role in this film because his performance could have gone so many different ways. He manages to make Kenneth complex and interesting rather than straight out crazy or wrong. You are always left guessing about his mindset, his motives, the truth; the film reminded me of A Beautiful Mind in that way (high praise, I know). The weakest actor is Karan Soni, although he does manage to make Arnau a little more than comic relief. His character just isn’t as fleshed out as the rest of them.
Safety Not Guaranteed is so much more than it initially appears to be. It manages to be a buddy film, a love story, and a science fiction adventure film all at the same time. Watch it if you like good music, strong performances, and the unsettled feeling of never quite knowing what’s going on.
- Arnau: Stormtroopers don’t know anything about lasers of time travel. They’re blue collar workers!
- Kenneth: It’s that time and that place and that song, and you remember what it was like when you were in that place. And then you listen to that song, and you know you’re not in that place anymore, and it makes you feel hollow. You can’t just go find that stuff again.