In Safety Not Guaranteed (Treverrow, 2012) time travel is a key part of the plot; the science fiction juxtaposed to “real life” in order to explore the practical ways in which humans try to change the past, and why we seem so determined to do so.
The main plot addresses time travel fairly straightforwardly: Kenneth (Mark Duplass) has put an ad in the classified section of a newspaper looking for a companion with whom to travel back in time. Jeff (Jake Johnson), a sleazy journalist working for a magazine, takes interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) to investigate the ridiculous claim. However, Kenneth lives in Ocean View, Washington, which is where an old lust-interest of Jeff’s currently resides, and Darius finds that the responsibility of interviewing Kenneth has fallen to her.
Kenneth’s behavior and personality are very unorthodox, but his passion is sincere. As Darius interviews him and trains to become his partner, she grows to like him and feels torn between her hope for his success and the apparent fact that he’s crazy and won’t actually be able to go back in time. He tells her that he is going back to rescue a girl from being killed, an old girlfriend whom Darius finds out is alive and well. When Darius tells him this, he is convinced that it is because they succeeded with their mission, which kind of makes sense, but again seems unlikely. There is so much deception and/or uncertainty in this movie that until the ending sequence, no one is really sure what is going to happen. At the end, he changes his mind, and tells Darius that he’s going back into the past for her, to save her mother. The final scene shows interview footage in which he admits that he both needs and wants a partner with whom to travel through time and space. It is ultimately romantic companionship that fuels his desire to go back in time, first to save his ex-girlfriend, then to be with Darius. The fact that they have a time machine is romantic in itself because they could theoretically be together “forever.”
Paralleling the primary plot, Jeff attempts to do a little time traveling of his own. He manages to meet up with his old friend, Liz (Jenica Bergere), and they unexpectedly reconnect. Jeff is elated and becomes totally infatuated, convinced that Liz was the only person he ever wanted. Eventually they have a picnic and sex, and after they are finished, Jeff asks Liz to move to Seattle with him. She turns him down, despite his pleading, and he leaves.
Failing to regain his lost love, he goes back to the motel at which the team had been staying and challenges Arnau to go out and have a ‘crazy night’ with him. This is Jeff’s attempt to relive his youth through/with Arnau, and it is a way of trying to travel back in time. They go to a liquor store, Jeff buys a lot of alcohol, and he gives it to a group of teenagers with whom they go to an amusement park, riding the rides while quite intoxicated. The amusement park scene finishes as Jeff drives a go-kart, blunt and bottle in hand, and we see tears streaming down his face. He has tried to regain the girl and the lifestyle of his younger days; the girl rejected him and the same old highs just aren’t as crazy as they used to be. He never believed that Kenneth could really travel back in time, so what made him think that he could regain his past? And the end of the movie, Jeff cheers on Darius as she goes back to Kenneth and as they turn on the machine. If he couldn’t find happiness, it was all he could do to support Darius as she found a place and a person to fit in with.
Safety Not Guaranteed offers some interesting thoughts about why people get so transfixed with the idea of time travel, and how they try to achieve it. It suggests that all kinds of people have regrets; both the socially estranged Kenneth and seductively suave Jeff have made critical decisions that they wish they hadn’t made. They both seek happiness, and “a partner,” and only Kenneth was successful in that pursuit. While his fate is uncertain, what is clear is that pursuing happiness in what has been lost is not a venture in which one’s safety (or satisfaction) is guaranteed.