Hope not guaranteed

24 Dec

We sent writer Tim Maughan to the multiplex…

We know from the very first scene of Colin Trevorrow’s time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed that Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) has given up on the future. She’s being interviewed for a waitress job, and when asked about her background she lets forth a serious of flashbacks to college, high school and childhood where we see she was a diligent, hard working student. Too hard-working a student to be a waitress. And with that the stage is set for another indie Generation Y comedy-drama about failed ambitions with Darius – the fashion rejecting, wise-cracking, disenfranchised, outcast individual so familiar from a million social media profiles – as our everywoman representative of the first educated bourgeois generation not to automatically inherit the future.

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. 24-year-old Darius does still live with her father (played by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s great Jeff Garlin, though sadly for only one very short scene) and can’t get a job as a waitress as she’s over-qualified, but she is working as an unpaid intern for a magazine in Seattle, so presumably she does still have some ambition left. It’s this that leads her to accompany staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau – gently portrayed by Karan Soni despite the character being an unforgivably lazy stereotype of the shy Indian science geek – on a trip to investigate an unusual classified ad placed in a local paper:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

Darius discovers that the ad was placed by oddball grocery store clerk Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and proceeds to befriend him by volunteering for the mysterious time travel mission. Somewhat predictably she starts to fall for him too – a romantic plot that’s probably the movie’s least convincing aspect, certainly less believable and touching than wannabe-jock Jeff’s pursuit of an old flame that ends up with him heartbroken. Of course she has to deal not only with the moral dilemma that she’s been lying to Kenneth, but also the fact that he’s very likely just a nut-job and the time machine he’s building in his Unabomber-style shack in the woods is a joke – but then if he’s a nut-job why is he being trailed by a couple of men-in-black style government agents?

Overall, Safety Not Guaranteed is a mixed bag. There are some great performances from the leads, and the script is smart and charming enough to provide a few genuine laugh out loud moments, but too often it feels cliched and generic. It’s depressing to be reminded that ‘indie movie’ has become a genre within itself, manifesting in patented snarky dialogue, worn-out hooded tops and predictable soundtracks – you can forgive twiddly-twiddly faux retro acoustic kitsch-folk-rock when it’s accompanied by Wes Anderson visuals, but here it just irritates. What’s perhaps most interesting about Safety Not Guaranteed is that although it doesn’t decide whether it’s science fiction or not until the final act, it seems to catch the genre’s current zeitgeist quite accurately. If there’s an argument to be made that science fiction is afraid of the future due to middle class underachievement and insecurity, and is instead retreating into escapism and nostalgia, then Safety Not Guaranteed sums it up perfectly. At various points our nostalgic middle-class rejects discuss what they’d do if in possession of a working time machine – go see dinosaurs, watch gladiators fight, fix regretful decisions – but nobody ever mentions going forward. And why would they? The future doesn’t belong to them anymore.

Safety Not Guaranteed is on general release in the UK from Boxing Day, and is already available on DVD/BD in the US.

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