Safety Not Guaranteed

Time travel and unexpected love combine in one of the films of the year.
Tom Glasson
Published on October 17, 2012


It begins with an ad in the classifieds: "Wanted: Somebody 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."

Anyone who's ever seen Craigslist knows that's pretty much par for the course, but for sleazy magazine writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), it throws up two irresistible opportunities: an amusing puff piece during an otherwise slow news week, and a chance to hook up with an old flame living in the same town from where it was placed. He selects two interns, the dour Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and studious Arnau (Karan Soni), and together they head off to the beachside community of Ocean View to track down the advert's mysterious author.

That man turns out to be Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass): an awkward loner and paranoid grocery story clerk who's convinced he's cracked the secret of quantum-mechanical travel. When Jeff's cynicism sees him immediately rejected as a possible partner, it falls to Darius to befriend the man based on her boss's logic that since they're both weird, perhaps they'll get along.

And as it turns out, eccentric outsiders do attract just as powerfully as opposites. Darius quickly warms to Kenneth's tender idiosyncrasies, even as questions over his mental stability linger, and by the time the film builds to its inevitable climax in which Kenneth's time machine has its moment of truth, you come to realise you no longer even care if it works.

Like 2012's other sci-fi hit Looper, this is a time-travel movie where the time travel is entirely incidental to the storyline and characters. Just as Looper explored the 'what' of the concept (what consequences might time travel bring, intended or otherwise?), Safety Not Guaranteed asks 'why?'. Why would you go back, assuming you could, and why yearn for second chances when new and possibly better opportunities keep showing up right in front of you? Regret, of course, is the answer, and it's what drives each of the film's four principals, from Kenneth's literal time travel to Jeff's symbolic one — seeking out his high school sweetheart in the hope of recapturing faded former glories.

It's a film of excellent performances all round, but Plaza offers the standout. Her disillusioned 20-something shtick initially plays like a cut-and-paste job from Parks and Recreation; however, she imbues Darius with an unexpected depth and warmth that utterly enchants. Duplass is also fantastic, making Kenneth feel somehow terribly familiar for a person we've almost certainly never met. Soni and Johnson provide fine supporting performances, and all four characters develop wonderfully over the 85 minutes in a testament to the actors and screenwriter alike.

Safety Not Guaranteed is an inspired and heartwarming tale that's almost certainly the surprise indie hit of the year.


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