Time travel is a notion that has intrigued readers and writers for ages, and its depiction on the big screen has offered viewers a host of interpretations over the years. But temporal excursions can have both advantages and drawbacks, some of which carry loaded consequences, implications explored in the quirky new indie comedy, “Safety Not Guaranteed.”
This film was inspired by the classified ad pictured above, which first appeared in the survivalist magazine Backwoods Home in the mid ʼ90s. It later garnered widespread attention when featured in a “Headlines” segment on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on the internet, eventually becoming a viral sensation. It’s not clear if the original ad was placed merely as an enigmatic prank or if there was something more significant behind it. In any event, regardless of the intent, the ad provided intriguing fodder for the cinematic tale it inspired.“Safety Not Guaranteed” follows the adventures of a reporter and two interns from an alternative Seattle-based magazine who are assigned to get the story behind the ad. The trio of investigators includes Jeff (Jake Johnson), a hard-partying veteran reporter who delegates most of the work while taking most of the credit for the results unearthed by his two industrious interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a detached, live-at-home recent college grad searching for herself, and Arnau (Karan Soni), a bookish biology major seeking to diversify his background through his internship. In conducting their inquiry, the investigators have only one clue to go on – a post office box number in the tiny resort town of Ocean View, Washington. And so, armed with this single scrap of information, they set off in search of the mysterious would-be time traveler.
While staking out the local post office, Darius spies her target, the ad’s box holder, when he comes to collect his mail. She tails him when he drives off, following him around town, eventually ending up at his job. As it turns out, the prospective temporal tourist is a mild-mannered but brainy clerk at a local supermarket named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), whose impassioned ramblings about the potential of quantum physics lead most of his co-workers to believe that he’s delusional. But, despite his quirky demeanor, Darius is intrigued by the mystery man and proceeds to present herself as a candidate for Kenneth’s time-traveling companion.
Kenneth is initially a bit skeptical, concerned that Darius might be an operative of the government agents that he believes have been clandestinely pursuing him. But he quickly relents and begins indoctrinating Darius into the training program that he’s developed to prepare himself and his companion for their journey across time.
As things progress, Darius becomes ever more involved in Kenneth’s plans, slowly losing sight of her original intent – to get the story behind the ad. She’s pressured by Jeff and the magazine’s no-nonsense publisher, Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub), for progress reports, but she becomes so wrapped up in the story that she begins to lose sight of her pursuit of it as a journalist. Disillusionment begins to set in as well, especially when she uncovers evidence indicating that Kenneth’s co-workers might have been correct, that he really is seriously delusional. But then that revelation is offset when she discovers that Kenneth’s claims of being followed by government agents are correct, too, especially when she meets them (Tony Doupe, Xola Malik) in person. All of these developments leave Darius’s head spinning as she tries to figure out what’s really going on – and how it will all eventually play out.
Most of us have undoubtedly given thought to reliving a pleasant time from our past, perhaps even going so far as to wishing we could return to it – literally. That’s something all the characters in this film wish for, too. We witness this most notably through Kenneth, who is so preoccupied with the idea of revisiting his past that he actually wants to bring that possibility into being (and, based on his knowledge of quantum physics, the scientific explanation for how conscious creation essentially works, he genuinely believes it’s feasible, too). Meanwhile, after listening to Kenneth’s theories at length, Darius also finds the notion desirable, if a bit far-fetched, to bring about a return to a more pleasant time in her own life. And, in a story line parallel to the picture’s main narrative, Jeff seeks to do the same when he looks to reconnect with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old flame with whom he spent his youthful summers while vacationing in Ocean View with his family.
As conscious creators are well aware, rescripting the past can produce worthwhile results, a notion explored earlier this summer in the sci-fi comedy “Men in Black III.” But is retreating into the past the best idea, even if it’s possible? That’s something with which Kenneth, Darius and Jeff must all come to terms, each in their own ways, especially when they find that it’s a process often full of pitfalls. Attempting to jump back into that prior period will likely yield skewed results, for the mere presence of our “current” selves in that “prior” timeline would automatically place us in a fundamentally different line of quantum probability from the one that we recalled having been in. While it might seem substantially similar, it wouldn’t be identical, and that disparity may ultimately be just different enough to keep us from experiencing the hoped-for outcome. And, even if it were essentially the same, who’s to say the same results wouldn’t play out roughly the same way again, leaving us, for all practical purposes, right back where we started from, as if we were in a sort of temporal loop.Perhaps an even bigger question, though, is why would anyone want to escape into his or her past in this way? The protagonists are each under the impression that returning to their past will take them to a more pleasant (i.e., “safer”) time in their lives, one free of the hardships they seek to flee. But, as the film’s title and narrative suggest, “safety’s not guaranteed,” not only in terms of time travel, but also in life in general, something about which Kenneth, Darius and Jeff are perplexed, if not naïve. Indeed, our lifetimes are often replete with challenges in which “safety” (i.e., freedom from difficulty) seems noticeably lacking, but such situations ultimately amount to nothing we can’t handle, even if appearances might suggest otherwise. Such instances, in fact, are often beneficial, if not integral, to our personal growth, even if they seem “unsafe” at the time we encounter them.
Ironically, and at the risk of appearing to contradict the foregoing, conscious creation maintains that we all live in a “safe universe,” one that lovingly and whole-heartedly supports us in our personal evolution and development. However, this doesn’t mean we’ll never escape challenges to be surmounted, that we’ll never be free from the seeming lack of safety described above. Guarantees to the contrary don’t exist in the lines of probability most of us draw to ourselves, and the sooner we understand this, the less likely we’ll engage in the kind of delusional avoidance tactics that this film’s protagonists seek to pursue.As an alternative, we would be wise to follow the conscious creation principle that maintains the true point of power is in the present. Ultimately, this is the only moment over which we have any direct, meaningful control, and we should focus our beliefs and consciousness in it, not in some past that has come and gone or in some future that is full of variables and is as yet to transpire. Who knows what we might manifest for ourselves by doing so! And, through the proper focus of their beliefs, the protagonists just might come to discover the same for themselves, attracting outcomes far preferable to those that they might have originally envisioned.
While the film plays largely as a quirky quasi-romantic comedy, “Safety Not Guaranteed” has a lot to say metaphysically, but it does so without ever getting heavy-handed or overly serious. Its leads are exceptionally well cast, and they fit their roles perfectly. The writing is generally solid, though the main narrative is clearly handled better than its parallel story track, which, at times, becomes a bit tedious. Overall, it’s a fun piece of filmmaking and a welcome indie flick addition to the summer’s lineup.
Visiting the past, and looking to relocate there, are two very distinct options, and the wise would-be temporal traveler is the one who knows the difference. “Safety Not Guaranteed” helps to shed light on that distinction – and takes us on a fun-filled ride in getting there.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.