'Predestination': Shanghai Review
The Spierig Brothers directing team and actor Ethan Hawke collaborate again for another ambitious spin on an old story.
Inevitability and destiny are at the root of this mind-twisting adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies,” a complicated, often boggling and frequently challenging sci-fi drama dealing with the self, identity, gender and, of course, the paradox of time travel. Ambitious and occasionally straight up weird, Predestination has currency on its side on every level. The film comes from the fine tradition of other time travel thrillers like Primer, Looper and Source Code, but Predestination takes temporal paradoxes to an entirely new (and nearly unsustainable) level.
For those who haven’t read Heinlein’s semi-obscure story, it’s difficult to explain the plot without revealing too much and thereby removing the pleasure of its onion layer narrative (though seasoned sci-fi buffs and careful observers should figure it out). Still, it’s the kind of movie that will get audiences talking, trying to find the “beginning” of the story and piecing together—or tearing apart—the logic of it. The genre material could make it a niche market hit and the film lends itself well to download distribution. Specialty festivals are assured.
Ethan Hawke has been on genre tear of late, which could be argued began with the Michael and Peter Spierigs’ Daybreakers, a novel spin on the vampire mythos that may not have been completely successful but as at least trying something new. It’s continued with The Purge, Sinister and the unfortunate actioner Getaway, and this time around he stars as a Temporal Agent—sort of a time cop—simply referred to a The Barkeep.
In Manhattan of the 1970s, he has been assigned his final mission, to find an anonymous terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber before his most heinous crime, and he thinks working at a dive bar will help him suss out a lead. His obsession with the bomber stems equally from his desire to stop a horrible crime and save his own life. One evening, a young man walks in and after initial hostilities are exchanged, the man (Australian television regular Sarah Snook in a breakout performance, and not a spoiler) identifies both himself and his cheesy, true confessions-style magazine column as The Unmarried Mother. He then launches into a long, tragic story that begins in 1945 when she was abandoned at an orphanage and, learned of her intersex nature and appears, at first, to end in this bar. The Barkeep then goes one better and reveals his time shifting job and winds up giving The Unmarried Mother the career he always wanted.
The first 45 minutes of Predestination feels like a sci-fi two-hander, concentrated almost exclusively on The Barkeep and The Unmarried Mother (Hawke and Snook are both excellent in these segments) and this is the superior half. It lays the crucial groundwork for the film’s second part, which doesn’t rely on the science fiction trope of crossing timelines erasing each other: it’s fine to interact with an alternate (or otherwise) version of yourself. That raises questions pivoting on influencing the past and how the course of our lives could be heavily predetermined somehow.
There’s something strange, wonderful, troublesome, brave, bonkers and completely watchable about Predestination that separates it from the scores of other time travel adventures that have come down the pipe in the past few years. There’s a lot that’s familiar here too, starting with Matthew Putland’s one part Watchmen, one part Equilibrium retro-futuristic production design (admittedly Putland has done wonders with the golden age of sci-fi “world of the future” vibe). But chief among the distinctions is The Unmarried Mother her/himself. Snook could either be a young Leonard DiCaprio or a young Jodie Foster (seriously), and every time it appears as if she’s flirting with Saturday Night Live sketch territory, the story pulls us back in and reminds us that there’s logical for her character’s behavior and to her revelatory performance. There are glimpses of a thoughtful examination of gender identity at play that are sadly abandoned at the mid-point in favor of the time travel and there’s a whiff of marginalization; The Unmarried Mother is fundamentally a plot device that serves The Barkeep’s tale.
Writer-directors the Spierigs have a strong grasp on the material, and based on their past films (also Undead) they clearly appreciate the speculative genres. Predestination could easily have gotten out of control but the duo don’t get too flashy, making every moment count and telling the increasingly preposterous story to the very last shot. The final 15 minutes, sadly, feel a bit rushed, and the final reveals come at a frantic pace that clashes with the earlier (relatively) slower, more meticulous pace. Ultimately it’s hokum but it’s well made hokum and considerably chewier than most.
Production company: Black Lab Entertainment, Wolfhound Pictures
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Director: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Screenwriter: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, based on the short story “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein
Producer: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan
Executive producer: Michael Burton, Gary Hamilton, Matt Kennedy, James M. Vernon
Director of photography: Ben Nott
Production designer: Matthew Putland
Costume designer: Wendy Cork
Editor: Matt Villa
Sales: Arclight Films
No rating, 96 minutes