Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012
Directed by Colin Trevorrow.
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson.
A journalist and his two interns investigate a ‘time travel partner wanted’ advert that appears in a newspaper.
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. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.
It’s a hell of a gamble applying to an advert like that. If it’s genuine, you’re exploring scientific unknowns. If it’s fake, then you’ll probably end up locked in some guy’s basement with only his mother’s corpse for company. Stuff escalates like that.
Safety Not Guaranteed attempts to answer this age-old conundrum. Our three adventurers are magazine writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and his two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). Or, in Jeff’s words, “the lesbian and the Indian.”
Their subject is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a socially maladjusted man who’s convinced he’s invented the means for time travel. He’s intensely paranoid of the government discovering his plans and is alarmingly adept with a handgun (see: “Must bring your own weapons”). He also has a fake ear.
The fake ear is one of the movie’s many oddities. But it’s a film about time travel, of course it’s going to have oddities, you say. First off – who ever said it’s a film about time travel? If anything, this is a movie about regret, remorse, nostalgia, guilt and holiday romances. It’s about wanting to go back to a time in your life where everything was perfect, and to in some way prevent the thing that threw it all off track. Sure, it uses the feasibility of time travel to explore those themes, but it isn’t about the science fiction staple itself. Just like how Gremlins isn’t about gremlins. (It’s about the rotting core of American innovation.)
Secondly, it’s not that kind of ‘oddity.’ It’s one, from a reflexive standpoint, that seems to be wholly without consequence in the narrative’s grander scheme. Jeff, for instance, wants to revisit an old holiday romance (a form of time travel, trying to recapture the past). The subplot trails off like cigar smoke and remains unresolved by the credits roll. So does the ear. It’s mentioned once as a semi-serious piece of character development (Kenneth was bullied about it at school), and then left alone.
There’s a dramatic principle called Chekhov’s gun, where the Russian playwright stated that if a rifle is hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be fired by the second or third. He wasn’t a fan of surplus fake ears. Safety Not Guaranteed is full of them, and endearingly so. It’s inherited from the filmmakers involved and their beginnings in Mumblecore. Elements of life simply drift in and then out, not adhering to the stuffy literary giant’s neat little views.
This gives Safety Not Guaranteed a tremendous intimacy, which allows for serious themes to be explored through adults training for time travel. This dialectic is encapsulated in a wonderful moment, another one of Chekhov’s crumbs, where Kenneth tells Darius about his Star Wars toys, and how he used to hide them in the woods.
Because then you realise that nothing’s changed. He’s just playing with different toys. Only with a higher degree of radioactivity and a flux capacitor.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★