‘What if I could put him in front of you? The man who ruined your life? If I could guarantee you would get away with it. Would you kill him?’
When someone mentions time-travel, the room is usually filled with collective groans of not again. We’ve seen all the clichés, all the surprise endings, all the "aha" moments. The End Was The Beginning And None Of This Ever Happened. We loved them, but now we’ve come to hate them. But this smart Australian science-fiction flick doesn’t so much flip these clichés as fill them with bullet holes. Then set them on fire.
In a similar vein to Donnie Darko (2001) and based on the fantastic short story "All You Zombies" (1953) by Robert A. Heinlein, comes Predestination (2014), written and directed by Australian twin siblings Michael and Peter Spierig. Doing justice to Heinlein’s chunky story is a real challenge, especially when juggling topics such as time paradoxes, gender, and fate. Science fiction films are tricky to nail down, and this film could easily have crashed and burned. Especially in Australia’s limited market, where even the most "highbrow" of movies are at risk of flopping.
The tale revolves around a time-travelling agent employed by the shadowy organization known as the Temporal Bureau, using their agents to alter significant crimes that have taken place in history. No culprit has managed to elude incarceration, except one. Known as the Fizzle Bomber, this infamous terrorist detonated a bomb in New York City, ending the lives of over 11,000 civilians.
Our temporal agent in question is Ethan Hawke, badly injured during his last brush with the Fizzle Bomber. After his recovery, he is packed off to the 70s on one final mission before retirement. He assumes the identity of the Bartender, working in a sleazy downtown bar. One night an androgynous gentleman strolls in, played by Sarah Snook. He reveals that he is the Unmarried Woman, the writer of fictional confession stories for pulpy magazines at four cents a word. A brief conversation ensues, and the Unmarried Woman bets a whole bottle of booze that he’s got the best story the Bartender has ever heard.
And he does.
What follows is an ensnarling tale, criss-crossing and twisting through time and space, threatening to shred the very fabric of nature. The film spends at least half its length on the Unmarried Woman’s tragic story, from being found at the steps of the orphanage to his betrayal and eventually, a sex change that throws him out into the cruel world. If there’s a negative to be brought up here, it’s that there is slightly too much time spent on the Unmarried Mother’s lifelong journey. This shouldn’t be an issue, except when the film’s modest running time of ninety-seven minutes is taken into account. To clarify, the pacing of the Unmarried Woman flows beautifully, but it does bite off a hefty chunk of the film’s length. Of course, should the directors have added another half hour, the final product may have been a less tight and concise story, something which ultimately would have been a disservice. The genre is packed full of long, far-flung epics that start reaching for the three hour mark. Yet Predestination is half that length, and allows for a more focused yarn to be told, one that has everyone on the edge of their seats.
The most striking thing about the film is the shift in style for each time period. The 70s has a unique, neon-dunked atmosphere that alludes to film noir. The brown and drab colour palettes of the 40s are instantly recognizable. The 60s are marked by cornflower blue and crisp white. The 80s have an instant throwback to steampunk, while the 90s provide a clear post-modernist style filled with exceptional architecture and cutting edge technology. This ambitious shift in aesthetic not only gives each era its own distinct atmosphere and personality, but also helps the viewer to visually distinguish the scene chronologically. Considering how often the film jumps back and forth through time, this aesthetic decision is a godsend. Cloud Atlas (2012) did something similar, but it was done poorly. Some of the time periods would end up bleeding into each other, losing a portion of the audience each time. In Predestination, there’s absolutely zero doubt as to where in time a certain scene is unfolding.
The acting in this film is phenomenal. It would be criminal not to mention Sarah Snook’s stellar performance, playing the roles of male, female, and somewhere in between. Ethan Hawke also does a marvelous job, as does Noah Taylor. But it’s Snook who ultimately steals the show. And this is someone who’s had barely any time in the spotlight outside of Australia. Hopefully this film should be a massive boost to her career.
It’s worth nothing that the film does have a few downsides. The Spierig brothers have weaved an incredible tale, but as with any time travel time film, too much tugging on a thread threatens to unravel the entire tapestry. A recent culprit is Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), and Predestination suffers from the same affliction. This could simply be attributed to the original short story, but Predestination almost seems to encourage a game of "spot the contradiction." Then there comes the debate whether an adaptation should stay as true as possible to the source material or risk altering the story in order to tweak flaws. This is simply the price paid for such an ambitious feature, and to their credit any long winded justification of the film’s ending is all but absent. The audience is left hanging, slotting the pieces together for themselves. No doubt this will leave some feeling cheated, but for others it will be a far more rewarding experience than simply being spoon-fed.
The Spierig brothers took a gigantic leap of faith in bringing this film to life. Unknown outside of Australia, and working with an R-rated science-fiction film (or MA15+ here in Australia, the second highest rating possible) that employs a non-linear narrative to tackle heavy-handed themes such as sexuality, space-time continuum, fate, and bureaucracy, this film very well could have ended up as a stinking mess, just another tool used by toffee-nosed critics to show that science-fiction really isn’t a genre for smart movie-goers. It could easily have been utter trash, another failed experiment in a sea of films that failed to utilize their potential.
But this isn’t the case with Predestination. Not only is it easily one of the greatest films to ever emerge from Australia, but it’s also a shining example of fantastic cinema in its own right. The complex intricacies of time-travel and the phenomenal surprise twist will leave a few leaving the cinema in confusion, but if anything this encourages a second viewing. If you like gritty science-fiction films, go see this immediately. If you don’t, then go see it anyway.
Jeremy Szal has had over thirty publications in various venues, including Strange Horizons, Bards and Sages, and Grimdark Magazine. He's earned an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future and a nomination for the 2014 Parsec award. He is also the assistant editor of Hugo award winning podcast StarShipSofa, and has worked with authors such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson and David Levine. He's nineteen years old and lives in Sydney, Australia with his parents, sister and the world's most hyperactive Jack Russel. Find him at: http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/