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Predestination

D: The Spierig Brothers / 97m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Christopher Kirby, Cate Wolfe, Ben Prendergast, Freya Stafford

A man enters a building and heads for the basement where the boiler is housed. There he finds an explosive device that’s counting down to its detonation. Just as he is about to stop the bomb from detonating he is shot at and injured. He makes one last attempt to save the building and the people inside it, but is badly burnt in the process. In desperation, he reaches for what looks like a violin case, but it’s just out of reach. Then someone pushes it closer, the man is able to push some buttons on the case… and he vanishes. When he wakes up he’s in a hospital recovering from severe burns to his face and throat. So bad were the man’s injuries, the doctors have had to carry out extensive reconstructive surgery, and he’s advised that the pitch of his voice will be very different than before.

The man (Hawke) is a temporal agent, able to travel back and forth in time within fifty-three years of 1981, the year in which time travel is achieved. Working for a secret organisation, his task – as before – is to track down and eliminate the so-called Fizzle Bomber, a terrorist responsible for several arson attacks in the Sixties and Seventies, but whose greatest “achievement” was the murder of 11,000 people in a massive explosion in New York City in 1975. Accepting one last chance to stop the Fizzle Bomber, the agent travels back from 1985 to 1978 and finds work in a bar. One night a young man comes in who reveals himself to be a writer of true confessions stories. The agent challenges him to tell the best story he knows.

The young man begins by telling the agent that when he was a girl he was abandoned by his parents on the steps of an orphanage when he was just a baby; he was named Jane. Growing up healthy and fit, and with a fierce intellect, he was precocious and headstrong. As a teenager he tried to join an organisation called Spacecorp which trained future astronauts but an anomaly discovered during a physical meant he had to leave the programme. At a night class, he met a man and fell pregnant. The child, a girl,  was born by Caesarean, and afterwards one of his doctors (Pendergast) explained to him that his internal organs were both male and female, and that they’d made the decision to remove the female organs and set him on the path to becoming a man. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, his child was abducted a few days later and never seen again. Eventually moving to New York City, he found he had a knack for writing true confessions-style magazine articles, and now here he is. The agent is unimpressed however, and reveals that he’s known who the man is all along. The man believes he’s being scammed, but when the agent tells him that he can help him kill the man who got him pregnant (and presumably stole their child), the man is sufficiently intrigued to agree to whatever the agent has in mind.

Predestination - scene

With such a lengthy back story, Predestination has the look and feel of a convoluted soap opera, its abandoned/stolen babies and sex change protagonist the kind of thing that is so open to parody and ridicule it risks losing its audience’s involvement from the moment the writer mentions being born a girl. But the premise is played out in such a straight, deliberate fashion that what might be loosely termed “a tall story” soon proves to have more depth than is readily obvious. As the writer embarks on his quest for revenge he finds himself drawn into a world of time travel, unexpected twists and turns, temporal paradoxes, and the mystery of the Fizzle Bomber.

What happens before the scene in the bar is repeated later in the movie, while what happens after the scene in the bar sees the agent and the writer separating and converging in ways that neither they nor (hopefully) the audience are able to predict. Adapted from the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein – a copy of his novel Stranger in a Strange Land can be seen on the writer’s desk at one point – Predestination is a mostly faithful retelling of Heinlein’s tale, and keeps the time travel paradox that unites the main characters. Outwardly complex and confusing, the movie isn’t actually that difficult to follow, but it does its best to obscure matters (mostly by having the agent make several seemingly unconnected “jumps” in the final third), and creators the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) have fun providing just enough misdirection to complicate matters when necessary. But while it all adds up to an occasionally challenging viewing experience, and it holds the attention for most of its running time, sadly the movie doesn’t quite become more than the sum of its parts.

Part of this is due to the central time travel paradox, a clever conceit on paper, but not so reasonable when portrayed on film. That it breaks one of the biggest taboos ever regarding time travel is at first impressive, but then as the plot unfolds and things fall into place, the movie takes that taboo and pretty much tramples all over it. It’s actually hard to work out if Heinlein’s original concept was as well thought out as it might have been, or if the Spierigs have taken the idea a step too far (certainly the ending is modified from the original). In either case the movie begins to stumble over itself in the final third as it seeks a satisfactory conclusion. What it comes up with, though bold in itself, is not as dramatically rewarding as was perhaps intended, and some viewers may feel short changed by the nihilism employed.

With the story losing its way, the cast have a greater struggle on their hands than just remembering where they are in any given scene. There are emotional arcs here that need to be maintained, and character motivations that need to be reliably and consistently adhered to, and thanks to decisive performances from Hawke and Snook, this is largely the case, but even they are unable to offset the emphasis on overly clever plotting that hampers the last thirty minutes. Taylor has a more shadowy role as the head of the time travel agency, and while he maintains an air of inscrutability throughout, his appearances are too few to provide any real answers as to what is going on.

The various time frames and locations are kept to a generic minimum, with only costume changes and/or cars to herald the period the characters find themselves in, and the score and song choices are integrated into these scenes with aplomb. The look and style of the movie is fairly gloomy, and the camerawork by Ben Nott isn’t as fluid as perhaps was needed, though the Spierigs show a knack for effective medium shots that contain a lot of visual information for the viewer to ponder on. It’s not an attractive movie to watch for the most part, but the look of the movie is consistent, and it certainly fits the mood of the piece.

Rating: 7/10 – an intriguing idea given a progressively rougher handling than necessary, Predestination is still a valiant attempt at an intelligent science fiction story, and for that reason, shouldn’t be overlooked; a movie that sees Hawke and Snook on fine form, this also has a great sense of its own tragedy, and bravely takes its time in setting up the main storyline.