“Do you have a favourite song?”
When you decide to follow up on an ad in the paper which states that a man needs a partner for his mission to go back in time and ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, one may ask what exactly you’re looking for in the first place. This is what we’re forced to come in conflict with as Jeff (Jake Johnson), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Darius (Aubrey Plaza) go out on assignment to interview Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the supposed time traveler.
When we begin this journey, like the writer and interns heading out on assignment, we start only caring about finding out how ridiculous this character is. A man who not only believes he can go back in time, but has the gall to put an ad in the newspaper asking for a partner to aid him in his journey. So while we, and mostly Darius, spend all this time with him we assume that he’s borderline insane.
The film doesn’t disguise its own direction as it takes dead aim on our mistakes and regret. With every film dealing with time-travel whenever a character seeks to go back to the past it always seems to be focused on attempting to correct something that either they or another made which creates the paradox that plagues all time-travel films. However, as this film doesn’t deal with actually going back in time we need not discuss such short comings of the genre but rather the desire to go back.
Jeff faces his own regret as he reconnects with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an girl from his youth that he used to ‘mess around with’. When that connection happens and he starts to describe his life and all he can do is say things like, “I have an escalade, a nice apartment and a job,” he knows how empty his life is. Liz patronizes him saying that he’s gone to do, “do something special,” but he knows that he hasn’t. Jeff’s just another guy with nothing in his life but these memories of an idealized better time that he can’t live up to and now that he’s ‘old’ he doesn’t even want to try to reach any higher point in life. In his mind he’s peaked and seeing Arnau and Darius makes him even more aware of this fact of life.
With each of the characters in this film they all harbor regret and a need to go back in time. For Kenneth it has to do with an old girlfriend, Jeff wants to revisit an old relationship as he uses the assignment to go back to his hometown and do so and Darius has pain over the death of her mother. Arnau on the other hand is the representation of youth who’s yet to make his mistakes or have much regret and at the same time is too cautious to do anything reckless and then eventually have that regret in his future.
The film balances pain and regret with accomplishment very well. While it’s inherent in all time travel films here it’s even more apparent as we see Darius and Kenneth talk more and more about what it is they want to go into the past and change that these are the things which made them who they are today. It drove them to this place where now Kenneth can accomplish his dream of time travel and Darius is finally connecting with another person. Regardless of how the time travel arc and crackpot scientist end it doesn’t matter as much as the story of Darius finding someone she’s able to not be awkward around and Kenneth the same. From the first time we meet Kenneth he dismisses people openly because he sees them as either a threat to his mission, just around him to mock him or unworthy (due to a lack of pain or regret).
The film peaks at what is my favourite scene where Kenneth is confessing the reason why he wants to time travel and when he tries to explain it he asks, “do you have a favourite song?” To explain how a song, whatever it may be for you, fills you up with this sense of joy because more than the song it reminds you of a time and knowing that the moment is no longer here leaves you with a sense of being “hollow” inside and yearn to revisit that time. Moments like that are few and far between in cinema and this film has more than enough to keep you interested in the characters and their search for redemption.