I’m breaking my own rule here. Normally, this column is about books. I don’t like to devote a Genre in the Mainstream article to just talking about what’s popular with the hip kids at the cinema, but, in addition to seeing and dissecting Prometheus last weekend, I also had the pleasure of catching the indie film Safety Not Guaranteed. And then I thought about what this column is all about: the discussion of big science fiction or fantasy ideas sneaking their way into “normal” fiction. And after seeing this movie, I think it’s a great contemporary study of how and why certain SF tropes can be employed for great emotional impact, in any story.
The film’s title refers to the main conceit of the story: the words are found in a mysterious classified ad. Someone has a placed this ad in a local paper claiming to need a partner for time travel; the ad also claims that you’ll need your own weapons and “safety not guaranteed.” The story takes place somewhere near Seattle, and centers on Darius (Aubrey Plaza) a young, disgruntled intern who works for a crummy local magazine. One of the burnt-out senior writers named Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) decides to write an article about the crackpot behind the ad and takes Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) with him on a trip to figure out the whole thing.
Kenneth is the author of the bizarre ad, a weird guy living in a funky shack in the middle of nowhere, played expertly by Mark Duplass. After Jeff spooks him with an obvious, unnuanced approach, the trio decides the only person with enough charm and pluck to get the crazy man to spill the beans is Darius. After a hilarious scene in which she outdoes Kenneth in weirdo-conspiracy theory fashion, he slowly starts to accept that Darius may indeed be the one to travel through time with him.
At no point in the early parts of the movie is the audience given a clear understanding of whether Kenneth can travel through time—instead, the time travel is used as a metaphor for basic drama stuff: grief, confusion, regret, and insecurity. Without ruining too much of the movie (I am going to “spoil” the end here in a second, though) there is a fantastic exchange at one point between Kenneth and Darius about someone who is alive who Kenneth claimed was dead.
“We must have accomplished our mission then!” Kenneth rants, wishfully claiming that time travel is all around us, but really, just revealing the notion’s imaginative properties to be a coping mechanism. But the movie doesn’t relegate this theme exclusively to the territory of metaphor, nor is time travel only treated as a kind of psychologically realistic concept to explain how some of us can never go back. Instead, in the end, the movie reveals that time travel is real.
If you haven’t seen it, then I am ruining the ending for you, but not ruining the movie. Because though the tension and reveal is somewhat surprising, it’s not what makes the movie great.
Instead, the great, quiet character performances are what make everything seem like the opposite of most rom-coms; nothing here is completely cookie-cutter. Yes, Kenneth the time-travel guy is kooky, but in a relatively new, and big-hearted way. The jerky older staff writer Jeff is eventually revealed to have some dimension and actually undergoes a change. Even the gaming-nerd Arnau experiences some kind of revelation about what the hell he is doing in his life. Not everything is wrapped up perfectly and no one character is too one-note.
Though Aubrey Plaza is probably best known for her too-cool-for-school portrayal of April on Parks and Recreation, she’s never a caricature of her acting persona here. Instead, she’s frustrated, awkward, suspicious, and eventually, a totally romantic nerd. I also enjoy how guarded she is, initially, about her own inherent nerdiness. When Kenneth asks her, “Do you know what Star Wars is?” she replies with a perfect, hesitant, “yes,” even though she had been referencing Stormtroopers earlier in the movie! (I also considered this to be an allusion to her involvement in the perfect College Humor spoof series, Troopers, but I could be wrong.)
In the end, a science fiction fan should go see this movie not because it has a twist ending in which time travel is real, but because fans like us emotionally want to believe all of these things might be real, too. In this film, a belief in science fiction is used as a feel-good cheer. If Kenneth the time-travel nut living in the woods is an analog for the outcasts and awkward weirdoes of the world, then watching this movie will make you want to be a nut, too.
Safety Not Guaranteed is directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly. It was the official selection of the SXSW Film Festival and and won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year. It is playing in limited release now. Go see it.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.