Rating:Inspiration can come from anything, so I can’t be too quick to judge when a movie is “based on” a board game, theme park ride or website. Especially when now we’re living in an age where the vaguely defined entity known as Hollywood options Reddit threads, Facebook status updates and even single installments of webcomics. A good idea is a good idea wherever it comes from, and big, amazing things can come from these kinds of kernels, assuming we let them.
Safety Not Guaranteed, a title I never fail to remember as Batteries Not Included is based on a curious classified ad that appeared in a 1997 issue of Backwoods Home Magazine (“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.”) and soon became an internet meme thanks to YTMND. Rather than force some kind of Social Network -esque drama about the creation of one of a billion memes, screenwriter Derek Connolly uses the ad as a springboard for a fairly compelling piece of storytelling.
Aubrey Plaza plays the distractingly named Darius Britt, a depressed intern at a Seattle magazine who joins sleazy writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and another intern, Indian nerd stereotype Arnau (Karan Soni) for a trip to the small town where the classified ad originated. There, they find the guy who wrote the ad, a weird loner named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who works in a supermarket and appears to spend his free time building a time machine in his shed.
From there, it goes exactly as expected: Darius ends up running point on the investigation, posing as a potential recruit for Kenneth’s time traveling adventure. She and Kenneth hit it off and she begins to get embroiled in his world of constant training and stealing necessary equipment from laboratories. Eventually he learns the truth and there’s a huge rift between the two until there isn’t any more. It’s business as usual, but Plaza and Duplass are likable enough to make it work.
Meanwhile, Jeff goes on his own time traveling jaunt, occasionally with Arnau as a sidekick. It turns out that the guy actually being paid to investigate this story was just using the entire trip as an excuse to visit an old girlfriend he’s been hung up on. And here’s where all the complexity comes in, as he’s first repulsed by how his old flame has aged – pretty well, as she’s played by Jenica Bergere – but soon reaches out and tries to rekindle the careless decisions of people much younger than him.
Surprisingly, the at-first superficial Jeff turns out to be the most interesting character of the piece – a guy who wants to revisit the past but can’t, so he pushes the soft-spoken, computer games-obsessed Arnau to take advantage of his present. It’s this subplot that gives Safety Not Guaranteed its much needed thematic weight – while Darius and Kenneth pursue a seemingly simple solution to revisiting their pasts, Jeff revisits his past in ways we can identify with, by indulging in nostalgic lovemaking and living vicariously through younger people.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a modest film in pretty much every respect. The story is quaint, the jokes are amusing but forgettable and for a “quirky indie comedy” the surface-level oddity is turned down to a near inaudible volume, to the point where Kenneth’s denim jacket-based wardrobe feels organic enough to not raise any alarms. A lot of its initial appeal comes from its time travel hook, but that turns out to be shockingly slight for a movie where that’s the A-plot.
That’s the problem: I wish Safety Not Guaranteed’s main plot were a more ambitious venture – a movie where “Hey, let’s be friends and we can time travel” consists of the first act. A film of this kind of seemingly low-budget caliber couldn’t handle it, but the two parallel-ish plots would tie together more nicely if Darius and Kenneth actually got around to the time travel, finding out the difficulties of physically going into the past while Jeff finds out the difficulties of his own emotional time traveling.
I’m not looking for a Rudy Rucker novel, as much as I’d like that, but I’d like a movie that doesn’t take the easy route.