In 2012, before Netflix became one of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood, it was a nascent streaming service that still mostly relied on sending DVDs through the postal service (R.I.P.) to make a profit. But Netflix already had its eyes on something bigger, and one of the first steps was proving that it could take a little-known indie movie and make it a hit.
Enter: Safety Not Guaranteed.
This 2012 film from first-time director Colin Trevorrow (who went on to reboot Jurassic Park and get fired from Star Wars) debuted in just nine movie theaters and didn't even make $100,000 in its first weekend (it cost under a million dollars to make, but still). However, the movie got a second life after Netflix secured the streaming rights, and as of August 13, Safety Not Guaranteed is finally back on Netflix in the U.S., giving anyone who missed it the first time a chance to experience this underappreciated early 2010s sci-fi classic.
The premise of Safety Not Guaranteed is simple, but the plot quickly gets complicated. The movie stars Jake Johnson (New Girl) as a magazine journalist who pitches a story about a weird newspaper personal ad (remember those?) taken out by a man looking for someone to join him in traveling back in time. "You'll get paid after we get back," the ad reads. "Safety not guaranteed."
Safety Not Guaranteed is actually based on a real personal ad, which inspired Treverrow and Derek Connoly to make the movie. But everything that follows is totally invented, and the plot quickly goes from quirky to intense. Johnson brings a pair of interns played by Aubrey Plaza (already famous then for Parks and Rec) and Karan Soni (Deadpool) to help him report out the story. Plaza then meets up with the would-be time traveler, played by Mark Duplass, and the two strike up a relationship of sorts.
At first, it seems like Duplass is out of his mind, but when it becomes clear that government agents are following him, the team of journalists starts to believe this could be real. I won't spoil the ending, but it's pretty stunning (both as a narrative twist and a visual set-piece).
As Vulture pointed out in 2017, Safety Not Guaranteed predicted a number of Hollywood trends that have become commonplace today. For one thing, Netflix is no longer a bit player but the center of gravity in the movie industry. If the film was released today, it would probably be a Netflix Original.
Trevorrow's abrupt rise from this indie sci-fi film to helming the Jurassic Park reboot (Spielberg apparently saw Safety Not Guaranteed and liked it) also presaged the current indie-to-superhero pipeline. Marvel Studios, in particular, has scaled up this strategy with impressive success, plucking up directors on the verge of going mainstream including Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Chloé Zhao (The Eternals), and more.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a time capsule, showing some of your favorite actors at an earlier time in their career and revealing a moment in Hollywood that feels like forever ago even if it's less than a decade old. It's also a fun little indie movie with sci-fi tendencies and a stellar cast. Do yourself a favor and watch it while you can.
Safety Not Guaranteed is streaming now on Netflix.