PREDESTINATION Review

The music in the first scene sets the tone for what we should settle in to suspect from most movies. Predestination sets an immediately familiar tone that hooks us into a comfort zone of action/thrillers we've seen time and time again. I was completely game as it is more than you can hope for when it comes to the gloom that typically hangs over January releases. It quickly becomes evident though that this isn't anything we've necessarily come to experience before despite the abundance of time travel movies over the last few years. It becomes clear from the outset this will be a layered time travel story given the literal bang it opens with and then with how it travels back introducing to us the procedural nature of the story. We are immediately hooked and we are taken in, not by the cheap and cheesy special effects that you somewhat expect from a movie like this given the outside influences and circumstances of its genre, release time and even the presence of Ethan Hawke. Rather, Predestination is not really an action film or special effects bonanza in that much of what one might consider "special effects" seem to be done in camera and in very basic, practical ways that work with the overall style of the piece. This is very much a science fiction film concerning decisions and conversations around those decisions that create motivation, justification, explanation while most importantly developing characters we care about and a sympathy that goes a long way when things begin to really unravel. In essence, I guess you could say this is more of a character study than anything else with the hook being that this character can travel through time and, in many ways, dictate the outcome of their own life depending on what they feel they need in order to create meaning from this existence. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here and plenty of questions to ponder as things move swiftly along, but I also began to ask myself if this was indeed as entrancing as it seemed or if it was just kind of farcical. I couldn't tell, I'm still not sure if I can, but while I was watching I was certainly fascinated and consistently intrigued, meaning the movie did its job and did it well.

Ethan Hawke is a bartender in Predestination.
Brothers Michael and Peter Spierig have crafted a screenplay inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's short story, "All You Zombies" that focuses on a time-traveling Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke). In what is initially set-up as a kind of "last mission" scenario that doesn't come to matter much in the grand scheme of things Hawke's character is attempting to catch an infamous terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber" that has alluded him for much of his career. The Spierig brothers who are also at the helm here (and directed Hawke in 2010's Daybreakers) are quick to set-up their seeming protagonist and his mission until we are transported back to the early 1970's where things begin to turn and the movie becomes something a little more engaging and unexpected. Hawke takes on the role of a bartender in this time period, seemingly living out his day to day as an average man. On the night the film decides to drop in on him a man walks into the bar and is clearly intent on drinking some sorrows away. At first reluctant to any kind of conversation, Hawke's charming bartender act eventually coaxes the guy out of his rut and gets him to talk discovering he is the writer behind the pen name "The Unmarried Mother" who crafts confessional-type testimonials for magazines. In a bit of a wager for more alcohol "The Unmarried Mother" bargains that if he tells the bartender the most remarkable story he's ever heard he gets to keep the rest of the bottle for free. Hawke offers a brand new bottle to up the stakes. The writer agrees and so he proceeds to tell his story that begins in 1945 when he was placed in an orphanage, abandoned by his parents and identified as a female. Is your interest peaked yet? I would hope so. Raised as "Jane" (Sarah Snook) we hear the story of a young girl who grew up feeling like she never fit in. We hear of her consistent disappointments while everyone around her seemed to flourish in normalcy. We hear of her nearing graduation, having spent her entire life in an orphanage, and a possible opportunity that might be afforded her, but I'll go no further in detail given things only become more complicated as Jane's story and its repercussions reveal more not only about her, but Hawke's bartender as well.

From that description even, you may think you have a fair idea of where things are headed, but trust me when I say it is best to just allow the film to come to you instead of trying to get ahead of it and feel as if you've outsmarted it. Referring back to trying to decipher whether or not what unfolds is indeed something slightly profound or if it purely devolves into something of a ridiculous convolution is a difficult line to walk. Once the film breaks its mold by executing itself in a more deliberate fashion where we are told an interesting, but ultimately anti-climactic story the bulk of the feature has already passed and what we have left is a kind of race to see how it all fits together. This is something of a refreshing approach given we are never allowed the chance to become bogged down in the logistics of the time travel the film depicts, while also moving the overall film along at a smooth pace so as we never lose interest in the tightly wound narrative. Needless to say, this is a film I want and will have to watch over and over again to make sure there is some type of logic in everything that occurs and that it is not simply a one-note trick that will fall to pieces after the first few questions put it to the test. For now though, I'd like to hope this holds out to become what it comes off to be: genuinely engaging science fiction with a rich concept that doesn't so much depend on the execution or the conventions of a Hollywood script, but rests solely on its ideas.

What is the film trying to say? What are the implications being made by the presented conflicts and questions though? I ask these not only to motivate myself to think more critically, but because that is what needs to be important when coming out of a film like this and analyzing its staying power rather than if it only satisfies initially as the conclusion of my opening paragraph suggested. So, what is Predestination actually about? That's a loaded question, naturally, but for me it hits on the point of options, of opportunity and the multiple meanings we can take away from anything, really. There are several lines of dialogue that are repeated later in the film that bring to the surface an element we only thought we understood before. In this there is the idea of the weight of the decisions being our own and the circumstances of those decisions being our own to accept as even with something as advanced and fantastical as time travel we will still forever have to live with ourselves and our choices.

Jane (Sarah Snook) looks to join Space Corps after leaving the orphanage she was raised in.
Anchoring all of this in something of a believable fashion is what are basically the only two performances in the film from Hawke and Snook. While Hawke is used here as the more reliable presence, the one the audience can count on to inherently understand and serve as a surrogate, Snook is the one who dominates the show. This is her story and she is tasked with something of a daunting arc. It is difficult to go into why her performance is so compelling and difficult due to the nature of spoilers and what might be given away or assumed, but trust in knowing that this rather untested actress carries the weight of this film almost firmly on her own shoulders. There is an emotional transformation she is asked to go on that requires gaining the mentality of constantly being beaten down by life (only reinforcing the questions of choice and chance, did Jane ever really have a choice at all?), but more than this she conveys the emotional inclinations of an otherwise cold film. There is an unspoken trust between Snook and Hawke from the first interactions despite there clearly being some hostility from one characters end. What makes the performances even more critical to the success of the film is that they transcend much of the questioning and convolution the stories twists could easily provoke and thus overshadow. I can see Predestination receiving criticism for being too complicated, for not keeping things simple and for being deliberately confusing, but those only seem to serve as excuses for those unwilling to participate. Even if the script doesn't exactly seem plausible when taking into account even the outlandish rules of the world it's established, there is a sense of truth and integrity to the proceedings thanks to Hawke and especially Snook who goes out of her way to sell this as genuinely moving stuff that also happens to appear extremely clever. It is also nice to see Noah Taylor pop up here as well given his similar roles in Edge of Tomorrow and The Double, but ultimately this is the Sarah Snook show and, if nothing else, this is a film worth seeing so you can say you were there when it all began because this girl is going places.