No, I won't let it slide, and we can't keep letting big-budget sci-fi movies get away with this.
Good science fiction, in my opinion, should not just be a visual representation of the future or technology, but it should use its vision of the future as an allegory for a larger issue; Battlestar Galactica was about the Colonial Fleet trying to escape Cylon destruction, but also about what it means to be human and the ethical dilemmas faced by the characters. Similarly, the larger scientific elements should set a backdrop for the relationships for the characters. The Walking Dead is about a zombie apocalypse, but the story (much to the chagrin of its critics) really centers around the core group of characters and how their situation affects their relationships.
Unfortunately, in some producers' minds, "science fiction" equates to explosions, people encountering scary aliens, and futuristic gadgets. That's what appeals to general Americans, that's how seats are filled. However, the modest indie film Safety Not Guaranteed, released last week in limited cities, very may well be a better science fiction film than Prometheus.
In Safety Not Guaranteed, a man places a personal ad asking for a companion in his time travel adventures, and adding the titular warning. A Seattle lifestyle magazine reporter pitches the idea of profiling this man, and sardonic, directionless, misunderstood intern played by (who else?) Aubrey Plaza accompanies a ragtag team to investigate. Plaza's character, Darius, pretends to answer the ad and meets Kenneth, played by indie darling Mark Duplass with a mullet and a jean tuxedo. Kenneth is the epitome of a social outcast, spouting his scientific theories to anyone in earshot and completely fixated on his quest to build his time machine and ignores current rules of fashion and social interaction.
It's not a spoiler to tell you that Darius falls for Kenneth while acting the part, because of the closeness they encounter when revealing their motivations for going back in time and by relating to their feelings of isolation and otherness. A compelling love story, but the film is not without its flaws as well. Much of Kenneth's eccentricities seem too forced (he grew up wearing a prosthetic ear?) and Aubrey Plaza's monotone delivery and clever quips seem already tired after four seasons of it on Parks and Recreation. However, there is an effort to use time travel to frame larger, although a bit ham-fisted, themes and other side plots. Jake Johnson plays a reporter who tries to reconnect with his high school sweetheart, begging the question, can you really go back in time in your life?
True to the tropes of a quirky indie film, Safety Not Guaranteed is mostly talk, longing looks, and emotions rather than gadgets and circuitry. The physics, logistics, and paradoxes of time travel are mentioned and nicely weaved into the story, but I'll actually refrain from spoiling the mystery because it does play out nicely as an ending, and I would recommend seeing it.
Many will argue that Safety Not Guaranteed is not sci-fi, and I'm not saying it needs to go down in the annals alongside Star Trek and Star Wars, but the writers did understand how to bring relationships and emotions to the foreground with the scientific elements in the background. This allowed me to look at my watch far less times than during Prometheus and to question the characters' motivation less. [Seriously Vickers, you could have just ran to the SIDE of the falling ship!]
As sci-fi becomes less of a geek's shameful pleasure and more of a mainstream audience draw, I hope to see more films that borrow from both; a sampling of Prometheus's visual representation of the future with the heart of Safety Not Guaranteed. Star Trek 2, I’ve got high hopes.