If you thought Looper or Timecrimes presented a knotty collection of temporal paradoxes, wait until you check out Predestination, the SF thriller from Australian writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig. For much of its first half an hour, it’s as though we’re hanging onto the story by our fingertips, only for the pieces to gradually fall into place – some awkwardly, others with a satisfying click.
Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent, an otherwise nameless man who, thanks to a device disguised as a violin case, can travel through time. He’s on the trail of a terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber, whose next attack, in 1975 New York, will result in the deaths of thousands of people. The Agent therefore travels back to the era and assumes the guise of a bartender, where a casual conversation with a local barfly leads us to suspect that the Agent may have already found his culprit. But then the barfly’s story leads us further back in time, as he relates the disarmingly poignant story of an orphaned girl, her growing pains, and her brief involvement in a scientific project overseen by an enigmatic man called Robertson (played by the great Noah Taylor). How all these characters are linked is gradually revealed as Predestination unfolds, and it’s impossible to describe the story in much more detail without spoiling it.
The Spierig brothers, who previously directed the vampire thriller Daybreakers (also starring Ethan Hawke) faithfully adapt Robert Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies, and the embellishments they’ve made are sensitively applied. Your mileage may vary when it comes to Predestination‘s numerous twists and turns – they could be seen as predictable, baffling, difficult to swallow, or all three at once – but as a drama, it’s unusually engrossing.
Ethan Hawke’s as watchable as he always is as the Temporal Agent; he’s one of those actors who seems so casual in front of the camera that it’s easy to overlook just how intelligent and detailed his performances are. A long stretch of the film is devoted to Hawke’s conversation with the customer in the dreary New York Bar, and it’s to Hawke’s credit as an actor – and the Spierigs’ intimate lighting and photography – that it’s one of the most riveting parts of the film.
Then there’s Sarah Snook, the Australian actress who plays the ambitious young woman in the flashbacks. Again, it’s difficult to describe her character in too much detail, but her turn here is magnificent; even when the story stretches the bounds of credulity, the honesty and strength of Snook’s performance is never less than captivating.
The gravity of the acting is interestingly offset by the Spierigs’ directing style. Much of the film is shot like a good, appropriately terse film noir, complete with mysterious figures in hats shot from low angles, smoky alleyways and blinking neon signs. But there are playful, incisive forces at work in here, too: there’s a wonderfully constructed sequence of shots where the orphaned girl (you know, the one from the flashback mentioned earlier) sits alone by a fence, then quietly observes a spider creeping around on a nearby post. The girl gets up, her curiosity piqued by the creature’s movements. This leads her to discover a gap in the fence, through which she observes another little girl, hand in hand with her mother, buying an ice-cream from a street vendor. The view cuts back to the orphan’s face, and we see her sadness at this unexpected glimpse of a childhood she can never have.
It’s a tiny moment, but one that exemplifies the directors’ ability – even in a quite dialogue-heavy film such as this – to communicate a character’s inner turmoil elegantly and without words. It’s also unusual to find such tenderness in a science fiction film, or patience for that matter: the directors have the confidence in their performers to simply let the lens linger and observe how they react with sadness, wonderment or horror.
Predestination is a perplexing film to write about, because it’s a time travel movie in which the time travel and the assorted twists it brings with it are in many ways its least interesting aspects. What is interesting is the world the Spierigs create from Heinlein’s source material; an alternate version of the past that is at once familiar and strange, where fiddling with time has twisted broken, confused characters into a complex tangle with no clear beginning or end.
And it’s those damaged but compelling characters, glimmering through the murky knots of Heinlein’s story – made knottier still by the Spierigs’ adapted screenplay – that really stick in the mind.
Predestination is out in UK cinemas on the 20th February.
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