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Rhys Darby is perfectly cast as the wholesome, dopey time traveler in “Relax, I’m From the Future,” a sci-fi comedy with a modest sense of humor but tangled message to share with humankind.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to nail a clown so in over their head but also innocent and earnest as Darby’s Casper, who suddenly appears in our period in a purple jumpsuit with notes scribbled on his hands. Darby has mastered this bumbling nature more or less in comedy series like as the clueless manager Murray in “Flight of the Conchords” or clueless pirate Stede Bonnet in “Our Flag Means Death,” and he is an immediately endearing presence in writer/director Luke Higginson's directorial debut, getting socked in the face trying to assure a suburban dad with the movie’s title.
Days into wandering earth and being surprised that libraries still exist at this point in the past, he meets Holly, a self-described “queer Black vagina-haver.” Darby’s own grace in not breaking, or overselling his rich persona is matched by Gabrielle Graham's equally sharp performance. The two have instantly affable chemistry right after Holly sees Casper on the street and gives him her trash nachos.
Casper may be from the future, but she is the story’s vision of the present, as someone who participates in protests to change what problems have stemmed from the past. Bonding one night after watching Canadian pop-punk gods Pup and snorting cocaine (which Casper says becomes legal), the two share a bottle of booze during a convo that circles the value of the present. Pup gets worse, so you better enjoy them now, according to Casper, while Holly states that history is “a f**king trash barrel.” As he sometimes does with people in this timeline, Casper comforts her that “things do get a lot better,” but then doesn’t exactly detail how.
Casper is indeed the real futuristic deal, and he helps get his new friend Holly rich with sports bets intel to prove it and also set up his larger goals. His voice-over indicates that he has a plan, though he doesn’t reveal it to us—one of a few ways in which Higginson’s script starts off funny but cuts itself a bit short, minimizing its momentum in the process. Nor are Casper's clumsy antics laugh-out-loud enough to distract from how its time-traveling narrator sometimes drags our anticipation from one light-hearted scene to the next. Darby’s widened eyes in scenes where he steps on proverbial rakes can only take us so far.
Unbeknownst to him, Casper is being hunted by a sleek, lonely, always-wearing black assassin named Doris (Janine Theriault), who is also from the future but without a single ray of enjoying life that Casper has. When she’s not sitting in a bland apartment having dinner opposite some busted projection of some type of relationship, or in therapy, she’s hunting other people who appear in jumpsuits, wielding a blaster that detects people by one quality: whether they make an impact on the world. When the light of her iron-like weapon indicates, she makes them disappear in one of Higginson’s puffs of brief special effects. Casper is her next target.
When “Relax, I’m From the Future” does finally illuminate more of its largest plot pieces—Phase Two, we learn too late, is “Save the World”—it’s both kind of funny in its harshness and also a mess. Previous notes of “Looper” and “Back to the Future II” mix with nudges about our individual significance to the greater scheme of time, especially when fate has already been determined. It’s a darkly funny existential goof to look at people of purpose as a numbers game and, therefore, that many people are just a waste—maybe many of us are nobodies who will ultimately contribute nothing. But the movie makes a big chore out of eventually flipping that nihilism, which involves defining who needs to die for this and that to save the present, in overly wordy climactic sequences that don’t twist the story and its ideas so much as tangle them.
The best features of “Relax, I’m From the Future” are its pieces of optimism, a knowing facet of its existence in the year 2023. Its wee, adamant hope creates just enough goodwill, as with the only sequence in which it rains—in this case, the downpour is a dropped cargo plane shipment of colorful balls for a ball pit. This whimsically saturated, free-spirited expression from Higginson's script is also what inspires Casper's main target, a diner server named Percy (Julian Richings), to create more nihilistic superhero art, which then later inspires an apocalyptic event. Such is life.
Now playing in theaters.
Rhys Darby as Casper
Gabrielle Graham as Holly
Julian Richings as Percy
Zachary Bennett as Chuck
Marye Barton as Betty
Janine Theriault as Doris
Louisa Zhu as Alana
Pup as Band