The otherwise lovely comedy starring Aubrey Plaza loses some of its magic when it goes sci-fi.
Whether it's achieved by way of a decked-out 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 with flux capacitor or straight-up magic, time travel has long been a cinematic staple. The trope of returning to the past and messing with history is a pretty versatile one. It's often used as a vehicle for personal revelation and the resolution of emotional crises, but it can also be served without nuance for comedic purposes.
Whatever form on-screen time travel may take, most movies involving it are full-on sci-fi or fantasy. The means by which the characters visit other eras are sometimes complex (Back to the Future), sometimes bizarrely mundane (Hot Tub Time Machine), and almost always far-fetched. But a big part of the charm of Colin Trevorrow's newest adventure, Safety Not Guaranteed (in limited release now and going wider in the coming weeks), is how down-to-earth it seems. The film flirts with the sci-fi designation without fully giving into it—that is, until the very end.
The movie follows three journalists of a Seattle magazine attempting to track down the author of a mysterious and very unusual classified ad. As they soon find out, the author, Kenneth, is paranoid, eccentric, and a bit of a recluse. He is also completely convinced of his ability to travel back in time. Darius, the sardonic and often expressionless magazine intern played by Aubrey Plaza, pretends to be interested in a potential partnership with Kenneth (Mark Duplass). She is at first simply doing her job as the older writer (Jake Johnson) revisits an old fling and the fellow intern (Karan Soni) plays on his sticker-decorated gaming laptop. But the antisocial Darius soon falls in love with the strange yet gentle Kenneth—a rather unsurprising but still wonderful occurrence.
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In addition to the quirky—and yes, very sweet—romance of Kenneth and Darius, one of the greatest strengths of the movie is its fine balance of realism and the supernatural. For the majority of the film, the concept of time travel is left ill-defined. And the purported time traveler, although seemingly unstable upon first appearance, is revealed to be a very caring and sensitive individual. Of course, a good portion of the audience's tolerance of Kenneth's weirdness is probably due to his relationship with the more "real," albeit depressive, Darius.
Still, the wonderful and engaging thing about most of Safety Not Guaranteed is its sci-fi subtlety. Until the ending scene, it avoids depicting time travel explicitly and plays coy about whether it's even possible. "Time travel" is referred to mainly as an abstract concept, which actually makes the notion of going back to the past seem more believable. More importantly, the talked-about-but-never-shown nature of time travel encourages the viewer's go along with the film's more mystical and almost poetic qualities.
That's why the final scene is so disappointing. In it, the moment of Kenneth and Darius' actual time travel is shown in all its technologically manipulated glory, making for a gimmicky ending much more in the spirit of a movie like Back to the Future. Sure, many audience members probably want to know if Kenneth was indeed capable of building such a working time machine. But up until that last scene, the open-endedness of that question kept the movie grounded in the here and now.