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Predestination

Year: 2014
Production Co: Screen Australia
Director: Michael Spierig/Peter Spierig
Writer: Michael Spierig/Peter Spierig/Robert A Heinlein
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor

You can't give Michael and Peter Spierig too much credit for this time travel mindbender, the kernel of the idea came from Robert Heinlein in his short story All You Zombies (which you'll want to read after watching this).

But the Aussie filmmaker duo have taken a beautiful time paradox idea and built it out to be that very rarest of time travel yarns – one that would fall down under the slightest scrutiny but which is just so cool you don't care. A review of the film is not the place to reveal the jaw dropping twist to it all, but it's almost imperative to do so just to communicate how effective a suckerpunch it is.

Ethan Hawke is The Barkeep, the same character as in the short story listening to a young man tell an incredible story one night and betting the guy a bottle of booze he can't possibly impress him with all he's heard.

In reality (as we learn briefly in the Heinlein story) The Barkeep is actually a specialist time-travelling secret agent who works for a mysterious body tasked with maintaining the spacetime continuum. He's on the trial of a bomber who's killing civilians throughout recent history, and the intelligence points to him striking soon in New York. The hero goes undercover as a bartender to see if the stuff he hears on the street can lead him to the trail of the killer.

We see him barely miss nabbing his target in the first scene and being badly burned in the aftermath of the explosion. Plastic surgery rebuilds his face and he gradually returns to duty, but we learn that as a veteran, he's in danger of losing his mind from the psychological effects of too many jumps back and forth in time.

When he meets the mysterious, effeminate customer (Sarah Snook) while ensconced in his latest undercover stakeout they just sit and talk – essentially the spine of the short story. The young man, who makes a living writing a lonely hearts column for cheap womens' magazines, was born a woman, recruited to a NASA-like agency where equally brilliant young women are trained to assist the best and brightest in the space program.

But after she falls in love with a wonderful man and gets pregnant to him things go quickly south. He vanishes out of her life one night without a trace. After she has the baby it's stolen one night from the hospital.

If all that's not bad enough, the doctor's already told her not only that she was a hermaphrodite with two full sets of reproductive organs, but that the birth has irreparably damaged her female reproductive system. They've had to remove it all and augment her male genitalia, and she has no choice but to live from that day forth as a man.

Bitter, cynical and barely present in his life, it leads the man to where he is now, telling his tale to the bartender. When he's finished, the hero offers him an incredible offer. How would he like to be delivered to the man he loved who abandoned him so cruelly as a woman (and who she at the time presumed stole their baby) so he could kill him in revenge?

The pair embark on a trip from the mid 40s to the late 60s, the present and back again, the time agent seeming to know much more than he's letting on about the man who left his new friend, the baby that was stolen and how they're connected to the murder he's tracking.

It's the kind of movie you can only see for the first time once, and if you haven't read the short story, leave doing so until after for the fullest impact – the secret behind it all about who the characters are and how they're connected is both elegant and a sledgehammer.

Because the plot is such a standout feature it doesn't have (or need) a strong streak of visual invention. We've seen the arrival/departure effects of moving through time a hundred times – from a DeLorean bursting into being through an explosion of light to a person simply appearing kneeling on a blanket in a cornfield – and the way Predestination does it, like a strong wind has just blown through a room after an earth tremor, is quite cool.

There are some fun easter eggs, from the presence of a particular late 40s song to the appearance of several of Heinlein's novels, and there are also some neat narrative easter eggs too, like two characters having similar objects or the way one of them brings up the old chicken and egg fable.

It manages to spin an eight page short story with a single strong idea into a 90 minute movie beautifully, and while the visuals, performances and every other aspect of the medium might not grab you, it's pure heaven for a story nerd like me.

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