Movie review: 'Safety Not Guaranteed' takes moviegoers on wild sci-fi ride
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One of my favorite independent films of the last year was a quirky gem with a tiny budget and a big sci-fi premise. Director Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" showcased memorable performances rooted in loss and regret that eclipsed the scientific impossibility staring the audience in the face.
Because a tragedy dictated the actions of the characters, there weren't a lot of light moments in "Another Earth." In fact, it was one long escalator ride into sadness. Even its vaguely redemptive ending induced more head-scratching than emotional relief.
3.5 stars = Very good
- Starring: Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson.
- Rating: R for language including some sexual references.
"Safety Not Guaranteed," directed by Colin Trevorrow, is another low-budget film with a big sci-fi premise -- the possibility of time travel. Like Mr. Cahill's film, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is more about characters touched by tragedy and regret than it is about its enormous sci-fi conceit. It also manages to be, even in the midst of its speculation about the nature of time and space and its ongoing revelations about its characters, a far funnier and more enjoyable ride.
Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a bored intern at Seattle Magazine who desperately wants to escape the monotony of her dead-end life. Mopey and disaffected, she jumps at the chance to accompany Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), one of the magazine's star writers, on a quixotic mission to find and profile the person who posted this want ad: "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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."
Jeff assumes that the person who placed the ad is crazy, but he convinces the editor (Mary Lynn Rajskub) that chronicling the would-be time traveler's intentions would amuse their readers "and could easily produce 5,000 words."
Jeff and Darius are accompanied by Arnau (Karan Soni), a geeky science major who interns at the magazine not out of a love for journalism but simply to balance his resume. The three descend on a small town and camp out at a post office box waiting for their time traveler to arrive.
Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the sketchy character who placed the ad, rebuffs Jeff's attempts to ingratiate himself and discover his mission. The trio quickly resorts to Plan B -- using Darius' moody sex appeal as bait. She goes undercover, gains Kenneth's trust and convinces him that she wants to accompany him back in time to 2001, where he hopes to avert a personal tragedy.
The film also has a poignant subplot involving Jeff, who tries to reconnect with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame who happens to live in the same beach town as Kenneth. Jeff hates the shallowness of his present moment and yearns for the completeness he had with Liz decades ago. She, alas, is no longer the girl who has occupied his nostalgic fantasies for years. She's picked up experiences, heartbreak and a little weight along the way.
As if to prove paranoids really do have enemies, Kenneth is being monitored and followed by two government agents who want to know why a civilian who works as a supermarket clerk is contacting advanced research labs across the country.
Meanwhile, Darius is drawn increasingly into Kenneth's world. She finds herself opening up to him even as she probes for information for the article. Kenneth's intention to literally travel back to 2001 forces Darius to confront her own painful past. It turns out that 2001 was a pivotal year for her, too.
Throughout "Safety Not Guaranteed," we're given several reasons to doubt Kenneth's sanity, but not his sincerity. If nothing else, he believes he has the know-how (and after a hilariously-staged theft at a research facility), the technology to accomplish his goal.
Darius must decide whether she is capable of making a leap of faith similar to Kenneth's, especially after she uncovers information that casts doubt on everything he's told her. It is a fascinating dilemma for the young woman who finds herself caring despite her predilection for pessimism.
Screenwriter Derek Connolly deserves as much credit as the film's superb ensemble for crafting a script that had plenty of opportunities to get lost in its gimmicky premise but didn't. There's no way to ever guarantee a viewer's enjoyment, but this film comes closer than most.
Opens today at Manor Theater.
First Published June 29, 2012 12:00 am