Editors note: Our review of Predestination originally ran during SXSW 2014, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens on VOD and in limited theatrical release.
Movies featuring time travel as a central plot device immediately and unavoidably put a target on their back for the numerous plot holes and inconsistencies sure to arise from such a twisty narrative structure. Even the best will sometimes have moments or scenes that just don’t work given too much thought, but if audiences are willing to go along for the ride those inevitable bumps in the road can be smoothed over through execution and other strengths.
Predestination is one such film, and a few caveats aside, it’s one of the most dramatically thrilling and emotionally satisfying time-travel movies of the past decade.
Two figures fight in the basement of a busy travel hub. One is trying to blow up hundreds of people, and the other is trying to stop it. Injuries from the ensuing blast leave a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) burned and near death, but he pulls through and is soon assigned a new mission from the past. The confusingly-named “Fizzle” bomber will be destroying a few blocks of NYC in 1975, and the time traveling government agency has been unable to stop him in time again and again. The agent is sent back to recruit fresh blood, a man named John (Sarah Snook), and together they set out to stop the bomber before he kills again. Again.
John was born an intersexual and raised as a female, and as he relates his story to the agent his life, her life, comes to life, starting with the day she was dropped anonymously on an orphanage doorstep as an infant. What follows is a childhood marked by occasional aggression and a sense that Jane doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls. That feeling carries on into adulthood as she attempts to put her high intelligence to good use as a member of Space Corps, but her dreams come crashing down after a brief and disastrous love affair.
If that last paragraph sounds like it belongs in a different movie, rest assured that the intense personal drama and the time cop shenanigans mesh together with terrific symmetry. The tale as a whole is about self-identity, and both halves of the story touch repeatedly on the subject. Some viewers will no doubt find the Minority Report meets Quantum Leap part of the narrative more satisfying, but John’s recounting of his life as Jane offers an extremely compelling insight into a life most of us don’t even know by association. The topic is treated with respect and intelligence, but the true strength of the entire sequence, and of the entire film, is Snook’s performance.
John/Jane exist as wholly different characters, and Snook imbues both with distinct personalities while offering a clear line-through between them. Genre films aren’t generally known for their humanity or emotional power, but the stretch where John relates the story of Jane is filled with tremendously moving scenes of cruelty, loss, hope, and love, and Snook delivers on an extraordinary level.
Writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig’s film is essentially a big mystery with onion skin layers, each one offering a new revelation, and it’s a delight to watch the various pieces fall into place. The problem though is that like those onion skins, some of these layers of mystery are brittle and too frequently on the verge of falling apart. The confines of the story are mostly to blame, but a certain song played not once but twice is a bit too cheeky and blunt. These issues and others lead to some of the revelations losing their potency as audience members are already ahead of the curve. Others however land just as they should. Thankfully, the film’s multiple strengths go a long way toward preventing the obvious ones from damaging the experience. Even knowing what was coming at times I found myself enraptured by the twisty plight of John/Jane and the nameless agent.
Snook’s talent is the film’s ultimate revelation, but Hawke does fine work as well in his second go-round with the Spierigs. Their previous collaboration, Daybreakers, gave him less to do, and he makes up for it here with a deeper character and a more dramatic arc. The Spierigs have also done fine work with their film’s look, eschewing their previous one’s sci-fi sheen and blue-tint for a more urban, retro vibe. And not for nothing, but Peter’s score for the film is fantastic. It’s wonderfully energetic music with an emotionally driving power reminiscent of M83’s work on Oblivion.
Predestination is intent on a slow build to its revelations, but once they start they do so quickly and powerfully. Are some of them lessened by their obvious nature? Most definitely. But the otherwise sharp script, the overall look of the film, and Snook’s incredibly deft performance make it a film I look forward to seeing again. And again. And again.
The Upside: Sarah Snook gives an amazing performance; trusts the audience; John/Jane is a highly unusual and extremely welcome character for a genre pic; roughly 45 minute bar scene is perfectly executed character-building that would not survive studio involvement; music score
The Downside: Some plot turns are pretty clear beforehand; a certain song does not need to be played so clearly, let alone played twice; needs more supporting characters; will be too transparent for some viewers
On the Side: The film is based on a Robert Heinlein short story, but those familiar with his work are advised to avoid seeing which one as it may reveal too many of the film’s secrets up front.