It takes a lot to surprise yours truly on the time travel front. Many a long evening has turned into a longer night obsessively trying to untangle a paradox or find logic “in a big ball of wibbly wobbly…timey-wimey…stuff.”
Predestination was watched on the advice of a friend who encouraged me to pay attention. Released in early 2014, it’s based on the 1959 Robert A. Heinlein short story “All You Zombies”. It’s is part thriller, drama, sci-fi drama and philosophical muse to those who indulge time travel string ball messes and headaches.
The film charts the story of a time agent (Ethan Hawke) who undertakes a mission to the past to stop the ‘Fizzle Bomber’ from blowing up 11,000 people in 1975 New York. It opens in medias res as Hawke is injured trying to stop the attack. After recuperating from significant burns, the film skips ahead (confused yet?) to 1970 where the agent (known as the Barman hence) is working and trading stories with a patron who writes magazine confession stories under the pseudonym ‘The Unmarried Mother’.
Ethan Hawke’s a moderately big billing name these days and given its subject I love, I was surprised I had never heard of a film that had all the hallmarks of an off-beat classic. In part, I suspect it was overlooked because it’s Australian. For reasons that will always baffle me, foreign films are never given the same mainstream showcasing beyond your local independent cinema and the hipsters who go.
For all that, Michael and Peter Spierig, who wrote and directed, have created the definitive masterpiece for a sub-genre of science-fiction that has never had its magnum opus.
And that’s all you’re getting, thur be dragons ahead.
Through the story, we learn that John, the patron, was once Jane and is intersex, born externally a woman but with both male and female internal organs. After she becomes ill post-pregnancy, she has no option but to have her female sexual organs removed and to become a man to save her life. Hence, Jane is John when he meets the Barman.
All of this is revealed through the dialogue and flashbacks with the Barman. The dialogue is precise, patient and drives a brutal character study in androgyny that at first seems misplaced. Is it science-fiction or a visually impressive, albeit depressing, exploration of sexuality?
In fact, this is what Predestination does beautifully. It translates a social issue into the engine of a plot rather than the plot itself. The film after this reveal becomes a great game of commedia dell’arte and the game, as they say, is afoot.
It might be easy to say that feminism and sexuality have weighed in on the film’s themes. There is an element of both, but more as MacGuffins in a backstory that services the time travelling plot.
That Jane is John and John the Barman is a continuity that is simple to write and visually impossible to digest in one sitting. Yet after all the pieces, and identities, are known this becomes a twisted tale that explores the less mainstream themes of narcissism, conservatism and place in society.
The chronology makes sense, but the meandering, intricate and casual dialogue between each of these people is one of the great strengths of the film; you never expect filmmakers to dangle the truth so obviously in front of you and think it is just that. There is something very reminiscent of Memento in the character’s search for a truth that was there all along within themselves.
Is it annoying? Only in making you obsess over predestination as an idea. Can a person in time truly be ex nihilo? That is the rat run viewers are on for the duration; the quest to find the first cause. Can there be a first cause when the first cause is the product of events set in motion by the first cause? You see the dilemma.
The plot is an obscene rollercoaster of philosophical musings in what is at a heart a basic, captivating character driven thriller. It sits somewhere on the spectrum of utter tragedy and has hints of Gattaca (another Hawke film) in its indulgences of the meaning of humanity and how small we are in a universe.
Indeed, the medical circumstances of the character are one of the most painful parts of the film. Time travel might exist as a plot device, but setting the film across the 40’s and early 90s removes the deus ex machina that everything can be alright medically. There is no great future tech that fixes scars with the push of a button, which is good when maybe the audience’s acclimatisation to Marvel-style fights has numbed our expectation of seeing lasting physical and emotional damage for characters.
The tragic inevitability of life and death reminded me of the book, more than the film, The Time Traveller’s Wife. The husband meets his wife out of order, often travelling back to big moments like when she was a child. As it transpires she heard his death in her past, but still had a future with his younger self who would still one-day time travel to meet his fate.
Less romantically, Looper brilliantly indulgences much the same question as to how much we can avoid our fate and final destination; with a character’s past self-being dismembered and his present becoming mutilated before the audience.
Is absurd? A character gave birth to themselves through a love affair with themselves when they were two different genders at two different points in time. Only when you write it, but the films taught plot leaves little room for doubt when you’re still processing the order of things.
I will say this: that Jane, when she became John, didn’t notice that her body and scarring was identical to the man who ‘ruined her life’ is a bit of an issue; particularly as this John didn’t realise that he was wearing the same clothes his female self fell in love with the first night they met.
That said, maybe that’s the point: the young versions never knew time travel existed and thus were completely cognitively dissident to the truth in front of them. A testament to the rationale and in-world logic that the Spierig brothers bring to the script.
The wonderful Sarah Snook is an actress for which this film will rightly be remembered as her breakout role. Her ignored, pensive, angst-ridden portrayal of two sexes at different stages of life is a standing example as to why the Oscars are a joke. Hawke was unusually subdued in this and it’s a credit to him that he agreed to take on a film that gave him top billing but in which he was more of a facilitator right up to the final minutes.
Indeed, the ending is the icing on the cake for a mind-bending evening of insomnia. Will he or will he not become the Fizzle Bomber? The logic of the film says yes, and raises more questions as to how much the illusive temporal agency boss, Mr Robertson (played by Noah Taylor, who played a not dissimilar character in Vanilla Sky), really knew and engineered the life of the agent. The pursuit of the bomber justified the agency’s existence, and even more, questions are raised as to character motivations.
It’s not made with a big budget, but it never feels cheap. It wasn’t necessary and that the time-machine is a violin case is symbolic of how it is a preamble to a character driven plot more than special effects.
Where it succeeds is where one of its forebears went wrong. Primer, while low budget as well, was packed full of faux moments of shock that tried to integrate time travel into the banality of day-to-day life. Instead, it became too much of a staged philosophy lesson and never settled into an expansive temporal epic.
Predestination, by comparison, is the greatest example of how powerful ontological enquiry can be a drama, a thriller and a mystery all while being entertaining. This is no Back to the Future grandfather paradox; time travel here is a magnifying glass to consider the entrapment of destiny (even if it is through hypothetical anomalies).
A film not to be taken lightly, Michael and Peter Spierig have created an answer as to whether or not the time-travel genre can shock and palpitate.