Time-travel thriller 'Predestination' is transparent in its intentions, but remains a clever, absorbing and thoughtful ride
Predestination Sony Pictures
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay: The Spierig Brothers, based on the short story All You Zombies, by Robert Heinlein
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor and Elise Jansen
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Mild spoiler warning: This review discusses a key plot point that is revealed 20-30 minutes into the film.
If Predestination is not subtle in the way it puts the pieces of its time-travel mystery together - and it certainly is not - it's at least resourceful in its filmmaking and, most of all, inquisitive about its concepts. A lot of movies can smoothly pull off a narrative trick without taking much time to question what it means. This one may be a bit bumpy as it tries to juggle and hide various details along multiple temporal threads, but at least it doesn't take its ideas or revelations lightly.
Indeed, the Spierig Brothers' film - adapted from the Robert Heinlein story All You Zombies - has to practically bend over backwards to withhold, misdirect, obstruct or delay information, delicately timing everything just so. It's a tricky piece of structure, made trickier by the fact that so much of what can be hidden in prose has to be brought to the forefront in a medium that requires visual cues. Having not yet read the story, I'm not sure how faithful the movie is, nor exactly how Heinlein unwrapped his version of the story. But I know there are certain things in the movie that would have been infinitely easier to camouflage in print.
While the Spierigs are generally graceful in their approach - and impressively economical; this is a 97-minute film that rarely, if ever, feels like it's rushing through its many sections - there are moments in which it's all too obvious that they're hiding something. A face will be obscured too blatantly and too often, a scene will cut off conspicuously early, a detail known to the character will be withheld from us. Similarly, there are flaws in the revelations once they finally start coming. The way the layers of the narrative slowly start to peel off is reminiscent of a Christopher Nolan film, most notably The Prestige. But there are times when its methods become problematic in much the same way as was Nolan's 2006 drama. In both films, there is a key secret revealed in dramatic fashion late in the film that I thought had already been revealed, quite clearly, earlier on. It's a symptom of a story with too many secrets to begin with. In certain moments, it begins to feel like Predestination exists simply as a testament to its own intricate construction - like a big, science-fiction Jenga tower.
But no, that's somewhat unfair. That reduces it to being nothing more than a puzzle movie, and the truth is there's a lot more going on that. It just takes a lot of storytelling loops and curves in order for it all to come to light.
Obscured inside that twisty narrative is an unusually interesting and introspective tale of identity, primarily concerning the character played by Sarah Snook, who is known as both Jane and John, depending on what part of the story we're in at any given moment. When we first meet the character, it's sometime in the 1970s, and he is alone at a bar, despondent and in the mood for a stiff drink. He gets caught up in conversation with the bartender, a man (played by Ethan Hawke) who we already know to be a Temporal Agent tasked with (repeatedly) traveling back in time to try to gather information on a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. (A bad moniker, but the script acknowledges as much; the characters even make fun of the name.)
John - short red hair, smooth jawline, brown suede jacket - insists that he's got quite a story to tell. And the bartender gets a visible jolt when John begins his story, "When I was a little girl..."
Indeed, John was once Jane, assigned female at birth and abandoned on the steps of an orphanage. Much of the first half of the film is told in flashbacks as John/Jane recounts their story, from a childhood in which she got into too many fights, to her aborted attempt to join the prestigious Space Corps (she is denied despite dominating the lengthy evaluation process), and later to the occurence that led to her transitioning to male. It's a lot more complicated and involved than that, but we'll leave it there for now.
Of course, Hawke's timecop character has ulterior motives to listening to John's story. Thinking he may have a lead on the Fizzle Bomber, he entices John to help him, on the not-quite-promise that he might come face to face with the man who changed Jane's life so irreparably so many years ago.
While it goes without saying that the narrative - with all the repeated travels through time - gets increasingly complicated, what's more important is the exploration of identity and self that emerges, and how the time travel and the various periods and moments at which we arrive constantly re-frame our ideas about this character, as well as his/her understanding of him/herself. One of the interesting things that develops is how John comes to view Jane almost as a different person, and hers as a different life. The Spierigs treat this existential conflict with great tenderness, and Snook's impressive performance strikes an elegant emotional chord.
As I began to put the pieces of Predestination together somewhat early on (as I'm sure many will), I was impressed by the lengths to which it was taking its concepts. If nothing else, it's always a joy to see a sci-fi film that embraces its internal logic - even the irrational parts - as fully as it can. Perhaps I would have liked to see a bit more recognition of the comic implications of the film's preposterousness (I use that word with complete affection). But then again, there are certain comedic elements that come to light only in retrospect - clues or lines of dialogue whose full meaning only becomes clear later on.
With their heavily noir-tinged visual sensibilities (particularly in the costume design, but also in their use of shadow and sharp angles during the action and plot-heavy moments), the Spierigs have made a stylishly entertaining film as well as a thoughtful one. They may not always be able to get out of their own way, and their playful manipulativeness may be all too obvious, but inside all of those trappings remains a sincere sense of philosophical curiosity and introspection.