A modest film that is just incidentally about time travel, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012; dir. Colin Trevorrow) is about characters in their 20s and 30s who are wandering, trying to discover what to do with their lives, coping with the sadness and disappointments of the years they’ve lived so far. Set in Washington State, the film uses few special effects. Two summer interns—one of them still in college with graduation in sight, the other at a loss over what to do with herself now that she has just graduated the previous spring—accompany a magazine writer in his 30s to a small town for research about a man who has placed a newspaper ad looking for someone interested in accompanying him in time travel. They expect to find an eccentric individual and an unusual human interest story. They find that, but more.
Everyone here has a story—of events they feel guilty for, of things they haven’t done yet, of lost romance, of uncertain futures, and so on. The film explores the intersecting entanglements of their lives.
Time travel for me is a fascinating and ultimately unsatisfying topic. Because it is not possible in our age, because it is probably physically impossible in any sense that we humans could experience or appreciate, I am impatient with it. I’d certainly like to time travel, undo mistakes, take different roads, relive my life with more intention and maturity than I originally lived it. Everyone, probably, would like to time travel for such reasons. But’s it’s not possible. It doesn’t happen. And time travel films such as Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985) irritate me because they show such things happening. (Field of Dreams, 1989, dir. Phil Alden Robinson, not a time travel film, irritated me for the same reason—who wouldn’t want the opportunity to make things right with a dead parent?). The worst time travel film in my mind is Somewhere in Time (1980, dir. Jeannot Szwarc), where, as I recall, Christopher Reeve managed to travel back in time simply by thinking hard about it.
Safety Not Guaranteed uses time travel as a pretext for exploring its characters, so it didn’t bother me in the same way. It’s more about the reasons why one might want to go back in time, or undo an old mistake, or reunite with an old flame. It’s about regret over the inevitability of time’s passage. It’s also about the willingness to commit oneself to an unknown, uncertain future (hence the title).
This film concentrates on human stories and emotions, its major characters are played mostly by actors from TV comedies, and it never shows its low-budget origins.
The final scene is intentionally frustrating and indeterminate. On the one hand it confirms what the film has been working to make us suspect all along. On the other, it shows two characters committing to each other and to the uncertainty of the future (or the past) without allowing us to know the outcome of their gamble. But the outcome, this ending seems to suggest, is less important than the willingness to put oneself at risk.