Religion & Liberty Online

Movie Review: ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’

From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine comes this charming mix of comedy, suspense, drama, and—possibly—science fiction. Safety Not Guaranteed is the story of melancholy Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an intern at a Seattle magazine, who goes on assignment with reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to investigate the author of a peculiar classified ad that reads:

Someone 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. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

The author of the ad turns out to be Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an employee at a little grocery store in a small, West coast town. Not surprisingly, Kenneth is a bit eccentric. Apparently he has been emailing nuclear physicists claiming that he has figured out the secret to time travel. In an attempt at investigative journalism, Darius, Jeff, and Arnau track him down and Darius goes undercover as an interested responder to his ad. While undercover, however, Darius is drawn to Kenneth’s sincerity and, when it turns out some of his paranoia may be justified, she does not know what to believe.

Without spoiling it, the charm of the movie, to me, is its ability to suspend the viewer’s disbelief. This, of course, is an essential quality of all good fiction, but given that the idea that Kenneth is actually a genius building a time machine in his shed is so preposterous, it is amazing to me how successfully I was drawn in to wonder, with Darius, what if he isn’t crazy? What if he actually built a real time machine?

One reason for this is that Kenneth is such a lovable character. Insecure and a little socially awkward, he’s the sort of person who takes life more seriously than the average person, making him an outcast but also admirably honest. I found myself rooting for him, wanting him to really do something so remarkable. At a certain point the movie had me asking myself, what if someone really did build a time machine in his/her shed? Would that person be any different from Kenneth?

This charm of the film reminds me of something that C. S. Lewis once wrote (in 1947) with regards to science fiction writing:

No merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realise that idea of otherness which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.

Notice here the corollary. If some fatal progress of applied science ever enables us in fact to reach the Moon, that real journey will not at all satisfy the impulse which we now seek to gratify by writing such stories. The real Moon, if you could reach it and survive, would in a deep and deadly sense be just like anywhere else. You would find cold, hunger, hardship, and danger; and after the first few hours they would be simply cold, hunger, hardship, and danger as you might have met them on Earth. And death would simply be death among those bleached craters as it is simply death in a nursing home in Sheffield. No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden. ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.’

Safety Not Guaranteed effectively encourages that otherworldly wonder characteristic of Rudolf Otto‘s idea of the numinous—a sometimes frightening sense of the “wholly other” that cannot be adequately defined, only described and evoked, that is yet an essential part of the human experience, especially religious experience. While not explicitly—perhaps not even intentionally—religious, the suspense and excitement of the film carry a little taste of that quality, that hope that somehow (for lack of a better word) by some magic what has been wrong in the past could be set right in the future, that truly caring about life and taking it seriously in an age of cynicism is worthwhile in the end (and even in the present).

But does it all pay off for Kenneth (or for Darius) in the end of Safety Not Guaranteed? You will have to go see the movie yourself to find that out. (Leave the kids at home; it’s rated R.) It has been in theaters for nearly two months now, so you may have to look for it on DVD or Netflix. In any case, I highly recommend this endearing film and will be watching for its DVD release myself.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.