Studio: Screen Australia
Director: Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Writer: Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Producer: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
A time traveler attempts to recruit another temporal agent to help thwart a psychotic bomber before his terror spree begins.
When the topic of "confusing" movies comes up, or at least movies that require more active attention of an audience than most viewing experiences, two commonly mentioned titles are "Memento" and "Primer." What "Predestination" has in common with those films is not only time jumping, but also a deceptively simple setup involving a limited number of characters and locations, as well as a complex pathway to a payoff that may frustrate some while wildly satisfying others.
Nothing against Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Ethan Hawke takes a less action-oriented and more calculated thinking man's approach to the role of era-hopping timecop. As government-sponsored temporal agencies tend to be in science fiction, Hawke works for a secretive cloak and dagger organization dedicated to preventing crime before it can be committed. Taking a page from Doc Brown's playbook, their modus operandi is to get in and to get out without risking any more of a chronal ripple than is absolutely necessary.
A little less morally problematic in premise than the "would you kill Hitler as a baby?" chestnut, Hawke's latest mission is to stop the unfortunately named "Fizzle" Bomber, an elusive terrorist whose penchant for leveling buildings takes a greater toll on human lives than it does on physical property. Disguised as a barkeep, Hawke is tasked with recruiting a new officer for the agency: an androgynous author of "true confession" pulp rags known only by the pen name of "The Unmarried Mother." Based on the Robert A. Heinlein short story "All You Zombies," the plot is a slowly revealed mystery about how this unassuming bartender and a washed up writer end up as time travelers connected to a sinister plan for destroying New York in 1975.
"Predestination" is not for those desiring gratification sooner rather than later. "Memento," "Primer," and films of that ilk use breadcrumb trails that give the audience puzzle pieces as the movie moves along. Brains spin with wonderment over the possibilities of what happens next and how threads weave together whereas "Predestination" is more deliberately vague about what its mystery even is in the first place.
There is a ball perpetually in the air for the full length of the runtime requiring the viewer to manage details on his/her own mental notepad. It also requires trust that the conviction to not become lost amongst the spinning plates will reward an investment in patience.
As long as that happens, that investment does pay off. "Predestination" makes a perfect companion piece to Nacho Vigalondo's "Timecrimes" (review here) by being a tightly constructed plot focused on intelligent delivery of time paradoxes with a minimalist approach to storytelling.
Meanwhile, justifiable time travel theory sits in the backseat with flashy visual effects. The time travel element itself is just a tool here, and not an excuse to dazzle with CGI or other digitally distracting smokescreens. Era hopping is depicted with a small violin case whose combination lock is simply dialed to the desired date before the user pops off screen in a skipped frame and a mild jostling of surrounding accoutrements. It's easy, it's effective, and only as much pomp and circumstance as is needed, which is a theme in keeping with the remainder of the production design.
Helping to sell the Spartan environment, which is intentionally staged to resemble a throwback timeline in keeping with Heinlein's era, are pitch perfect performances from the two leads. What Ethan Hawke shows in his performance is how to inhabit a setting as well as a character.
Average actors look to perform average actions that are commonly associated with a profession while Hawke looks for ways to make his persona feel lived in both onscreen and off. Not satisfied with simply wiping out a glass using a dishrag to appear busy within a scene, Hawke subtly pinches beer nut salt from his fingertips and reacts to his surroundings in a naturally realistic way.
This sounds like something unimportant to even mention, but such little details are essential when it is only two main actors who are responsible for establishing the believability of economically portrayed fiction. Grounded mannerisms and a sincere commitment from cast and crew are what keep the movie tethered to disbelief suspension when its concepts become increasingly fantastical and confounding.
Ethan Hawke may have his name above the title block, but co-star Sarah Snook as the unmarried mother is every bit as essential, perhaps more so, in what makes "Predestination" an engaging thriller. The Fizzle Bomber is a cryptic antagonist only vaguely glimpsed and the mystery develops so gradually that the film has to be carried on the backs of Hawke and Snook's performances and the ways in which they deliver their characters to the audience.
Together with writers/directors The Spierig Brothers, what they create is a lushly layered treatment of a story that was only six pages to begin with. Yet they build on what was already a solid futurist concept with creative filmmaking and sophisticated imagination to give the story additional depth.
"Predestination" plays fair in laying down clues, but it is still a story avoiding predictability. Where it succeeds most is in building a time travel scenario that the audience can trust, and "Predestination" pays back that trust with a devilish twist, satisfying suspense, and highly clever intrigue.
Review Score: 85