The first thing that caught my attention about Predestination was that it was based on a 1958 story (“–All You Zombies–”) by the legendary science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, a giant of the field whose work has largely been bypassed on the big screen with the exception of Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters. It’s always refreshing to see films based on existing works of sci-fi literature, and I was also interested to see that the filmmakers behind this one were Michael and Peter Spierig, the brothers behind the flawed but still quite good Daybreakers (2010).
Filmed nearly two years ago, Predestination is quite a different beast from the action-oriented Daybreakers. It is, in the simplest terms, a character study, but one featuring time travel, multiple realities, alternate identities and even sexual politics. While Ethan Hawke is nominally the star, the central and most astonishing performance is by Australian actress Sarah Snook (Jessabelle), who plays a transgender writer known only as the Unmarried Mother. Hawke’s character, a “temporal agent,” has traveled back in time to New York City in the ‘70s to track down a terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber. He’s posing as a bartender when the Unmarried Mother walks in.
The Unmarried Mother begins to tell his tale of woe to the patient and seemingly empathetic agent as we watch it in flashback: born a girl, she suffers an escalating series of hardships that reach a peak with the discovery that she has both male and female sex organs – and that as a result of an unplanned pregnancy, the female organs have to be removed and surgery undertaken to make her into a man. And that’s not even where the Unmarried Mother’s woes end. The agent/bartender takes it all in, nods sagely and offers some bits of wisdom, then takes the Unmarried Mother to the basement – where a time machine awaits.
What happens from there is best left unspoiled, and I’m not even sure a plot summary could unravel the complicated paths that Predestination takes. In terms of its circular nature, however, it does reside comfortably alongside time-benders like 12 Monkeys and Looper – but takes its paradoxes a few steps further and in a much more intimate direction. The Unmarried Mother and the temporal agent journey further into the past and then ahead to the future, where the mysteries surrounding the Fizzle Bomber, the unknown man who impregnates the Mother, and our two protagonists themselves are eventually revealed — although I felt afterwards like I may have needed a second viewing to make sure I have it all straight.
Paradoxes aside (because the film is essentially one large paradox), Predestination is a sci-fi puzzle with both heart and brains. The latter comes from the Spierigs’ smart script and efficient production design, both of which eschew visual razzle dazzle for something more restrained and thoughtful. Hawke is quite good, the lines on his face and gruff, lived-in sound of his voice lending him gravitas, but Snook is spectacular, playing both a man and a woman and bringing a resonant melancholy and world-weary bitterness to each. It’s a complex character by the standards of today’s genre movies and Snook carries it with grace, confidence and a heavy emotional pull.
Confidence is the mantra for the Spierigs too, who set out to make a sci-fi thriller much more reliant on ideas and characters and never stray from that. The film is obviously made on a low budget, but the co-directors/writers make it all work for them, from the subtle period details to the simple yet effective visualization of the time machine and the temporal jumps themselves. The subplot about the bomber has been added to flesh out the narrative but it feels organic and not wedged awkwardly into the story at all. The brothers’ control of tone and story is strong and even if the self-twisting nature of the story can be a little tricky to follow, you never feel as if the filmmakers are cheating in any way.
A terrific mystery and excellent science fiction story, Predestination points the way for even more interesting things to come from the Spierigs, while Hawke continues to embrace genre work with ease and Snook establishes herself as a breakout star to watch. I wouldn’t mind jumping into the future to see what’s next, as long as I could come back and watch this one again.
Follow Don Kaye on Twitter @donkaye