Zen and the art of time travel: Safety Not Guaranteed

By Allison Novak, Staff Writer
The time travel story is a common and popular one, and it always runs the same way. A person unwittingly goes back in time, wants to have fun, discovers something only they can fix, and becomes a quiet hero, returning to their own time. Whether it’s Doctor Who, Back to the Future, or any other number of pop culture items, they all stay on the same path. Safety Not Guaranteed is a story that takes the idea of time travel and adds to it an understated importance of what it means to be able to travel back in time. It balances the desire of time travel with an almost zen about what time travel would realistically mean.

Safety Not Guaranteed follows three writers from Seattle Magazine Jeff, Arneau, and Darius who set out to Seaside, Oregon to investigate a personal ad placed: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The three set out to find the writer of the ad, which is Kenneth, a cashier who believes he has discovered how to time travel. 

Safety Not Guaranteed does not promise us a story about a future self traipsing through the past; instead, it is a look from the outside in of someone who wants to time travel. We follow Darius, Jeff, and Arneau as they try to figure out if the would-be traveler, Kenneth, is for real — does he really think he can time travel? Is he crazy?

Before the movie can stray too far into trope territory, we learn that that’s not the important part. Darius goes undercover to try to discover if Kenneth is for real, and quickly changes from reporter to interested and willing participant in the time travel. Kenneth asks her what her ‘mission’ is: the reason she wants to go back in time. There’s an understated love story for her and Kenneth that comes from the shared bonds of their ‘mission.’ This drives the story as the focus becomes less time travel and more a contemplation on what to do with that power.

This is what separates Safety Not Guaranteed from other time travel stories; there is a purpose. Darius and Kenneth want to go back for very specific reasons, and it’s their sadness that drives their desire. The story is mirrored as Jeff tries to locate his teenage girlfriend, who is is trying to reconnect with. In this, we learn that time travel can be metaphorical as well. It’s this juxtaposition of desire and longing on both levels that drives the story. We don’t get caught up in how time travel works, or if it’s possible; we learn only bits of the story before the conclusion. Many times we see the longing of the past with the desire to live in the moment, whether it is Darius and Kenneth trying to achieve time travel and ultimately a romance, or Jeff and his former girlfriend. Arneau, the shyest of the bunch, is forced by Jeff to take chances and to ‘be young’; he forces Arneau to try to live the life he wants to recapture.

There is a general sadness that pervades the movie, despite the hope to change the past. Just like Jeff and his would-be girlfriend, happy endings are not guaranteed.

Most time travel movies draw the viewer in with action, dramatic scenes, and the prevalent question of whether they’ll return to the present, but in Safety Not Guaranteed, we’re drawn in with the very human emotion of what you would do if you were able to go back in time — and why you would. It’s a new side to the trope, and one that Safety Not Guaranteed does well; the viewer is more concerned with the characters’ inner journey than the obvious literal journey through time. For instance, when Kenneth and Darius discover they have feelings for each other, and he ultimately decides to go back in time for her ‘mission’, not his, it becomes a grander gesture than the time travel.

Safety Not Guaranteed never shows us what happens once Darius and Kenneth seemingly accomplish their task; that’s not the important part. Unlike many others on the same path, we don’t need to see if they’ve accomplished their mission, or the past through the eyes of the future. This is an important distinction — instead, the journey is worth more for the characters. This may seem like a cliche, but Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t try to answer all the questions it sets, and it doesn’t really seem to care. We don’t know what happens to Darius and Kenneth, or with Jeff, or even Arneau, who Jeff is trying to live vicariously and recapture his youth through. This is a meditative story on time travel, one that seemingly advocates living in the moment while desiring to change the past.

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