Predestination is what is commonly referred to as a "mind-fuck" movie. A low-budget science fiction feature, Predestination has expectations of its audience related to attention span and concentration level. Whether or not the plot remains on solid ground or looks as hole-riddled as Swiss cheese depends on the viewer's understanding of time travel and causality loops. The film's narrative hinges on a complex paradox and the individual's enjoyment of Predestination is dependent on solving the puzzle prior to the point when the directors explicitly reveal what's going on - something that happens in the last minute or two.
Predestination is science fiction for a thoughtful crowd. This isn't an action oriented film nor should it be mistaken for a blockbuster. It asks a lot of viewers - certainly more than what the average multiplex crawler will be able or willing to give. The storyline is built around characters and unfolds slowly. There are no big special effects sequences. This is a movie of ideas; either you buy the premise or you don't. For those who elect to go along for the ride with The Spierig Brothers (who previously made the vampire film Daybreakers), Predestination offers several "holy crap" moments, each of which is fully earned and makes sense within the context of the overall story arc.
The Spierigs have used Robert Heinlein's 1959 short story "All You Zombies" as the basis for Predestination. The movie faithfully adapts the time travel aspects so the filmmakers can't take credit for any of that. They expand the material by adding a detective element related to a time traveling terrorist call the "Fizzle Bomber". Because Predestination remains largely true to "All You Zombies", the film offers an alternate universe vision of the latter half of the 20th century. For Heinlein, writing in 1959, the 1970s and 1980s were imagined as a more technologically advanced future era than they turned out to be. The Spierigs elected not to change the dates so we are presented with a fictionalized version of the late 20th century.
It's difficult to talk about the story without giving away important plot points. Suffice it to say that the unnamed main character, played by Ethan Hawke, is a special agent for something called The Temporal Bureau. His job is to travel through time using a time machine that resembles a violin case. His missions take him to different years - 1945, 1963-64, 1970, 1975 - as he tracks down a dangerous and elusive terrorist. Along the way while he's posing as a bartender, he encounters a man (Sarah Snook) with a remarkable story to tell.
The title of Predestination relates to a central theme. To those living constrained by time, the concept of free will is largely irrelevant. For someone existing outside of time, however, concerns about changing the future cannot be ignored. But is time fluid or static? Do events occur in a predetermined fashion with no possibility of change? Is every moment in the universe predestined? These are the existential questions asked, but not necessarily answered, by the Spierigs' screenplay. They don't dumb down the material for a least common denominator audience.
Ethan Hawke does his usual fine job in a low key role that values intensity over histrionics. There are times when Hawke becomes a supporting character in Sarah Snook's tale. Indeed, because of the range required for her character, Snook is a standout. Her filmography mixes motion pictures and television but nothing she has previously attempted has been this demanding. Snook's performance goes a long way toward adding a human element to what could have otherwise been a cold and calculating story.
Sad to say, but the movie is too intricate and smart to achieve success with a mainstream audience. The film could be destined for cult status. If there's a problem with Predestination, it relates to the movie's length; it could've benefited from an additional 30 minutes. At just over an hour and a half in length, it is lean bordering on sparse. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Predestination is nothing if not ambitious. It takes chances and rewards the attentive viewer. Motion picture science fiction too often devolves into space opera. Films like Predestination, which are about something, are marginalized. From a box office perspective, Predestination won't change that. But for those who appreciate this form of storytelling, knowing of its existence is reason enough to seek it out.
© 2015 James Berardinelli