The final screening of malta film Week was of Colin Trevorrow‘s premiere film, Safety Not Guaranteed. Its final scene, as mentioned in the live Q&A with the film’s director, would eventually be what convinced Steven Spielberg of handing him Jurassic World. Still, the film is more than just one scene, as he explored a simple idea. What happened if a group of journalists followed a strange ad hinting at time travel with the weary statement of “Safety Not Guaranteed” printed in the ad? Well, it introduces us to a story that is heartfelt and explores what it means to be different and to dream in an unrelenting world.
The concept of the film is based on a joke classified ad that was posted in the Backwoods Home Magazine back in 1997. We follow Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) who graduated from university and is trying to find her place in the world, as she interns at Seattle Magazine. There, writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson) gets the idea to follow the classified ad that talks about time travel, as they head out alongside student and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to investigate.
The concept and general demeanor early on from the storyline hint at a certain skepticism. It was my first time seeing the film that was originally released back in 2012. So, going in with the knowledge of Jake Johnson and Aubrey Plaza’s go-to characteristics in their projects, I had a certain expectation of this being a very cynical dark comedy. To my surprise, while there were still elements at play, it was a much more hopeful story than I would’ve thought going in.
Mark Duplass plays Kenneth Calloway, the man who published the ad. The film doesn’t drag him down as a character. Rather, it uses the mystery surrounding his strong belief in time travel to make us sympathize and wonder what is going on. Trevorrow had a good handle on when to sprinkle in just enough mystery to keep your interest going throughout the rather subdued film. Yet, the mystery is pretty much just an addition rather than the main focus.
Most of this film is more thematic rather than story-driven. Yes, there is a core narrative with Calloway’s end goal and his relationship with Darius, as they prepare for their travel into the past, but it’s not relevant. The film isn’t about time travel, but rather how dreams and beliefs can either bring us together or even push us apart. Jeff is perfectly summarized in this story when he revisits his teenage love, Liz. At first, she’s not what he expected but ends up falling head over heels for her. The film purposely makes her this perfect individual only for her to push him away once he gets serious about it.
The past cannot be changed and we cannot pretend we can still live in the past. Yet, the ending embraces the fact that the only way to change the past, or at least how you handle it, lies in those you spend it with. That is why it’s not a film about time travel but purely about how we spend our time. Even the smallest side story in the film, such as Jeff being the one to push Arnau to finally “live a little” to hook up with a girl, is about that narrative theme. The people around us shape us to do the things we want to but are too scared to take that leap of faith on our own. His entire arc is about not running away from living in the present, as all he is focused on is finishing his studies to look to the future.
In a way Darius represents a look into an unknown future, Arnau desperately tries to avoid the present, and Jeff clings to the past. Each one of them is forced to face a different fact. Darius confronts her past to learn about where she wants to go. While Arnau learns to embrace the difficulties of the present, Jeff is forced to confront his future. Of course, it could be a misreading on my part, but I quite enjoyed the way time played a role in each of the character’s arcs while exploring an ad about traveling through time.
I expected the film to end on a cynical note and loved the direction that Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly went with. There’s hope that no matter how bad the past, present, or future might be, maybe you can make a change. The big thing is, it’s for anyone. Duplass‘ Calloway is shown as a flawed man and “different” from the norm. We learn to love the character even as some dark revelations make you wonder if he’s telling the truth or if his plan worked.
A time travel movie all about our life with time teaches you that there’s love to be found no matter how strange your beliefs might seem to be. Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming film about the different and coping with the difficulties with life. It’s not an action-driven piece that gets the heart pumping and sometimes not even really that focused on getting you to think about the complexity of time travel. It’s a personal story of individuals trying to cope with life and it finds a perfect balance, as you leave the theater realizing you do the same every day.