Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Michael and Peter Spierig
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Christopher Kirby.
I came, I watched, I left scratching my head.
Predestination is a mind bending time travel sci-fi drama that raises a lot of questions but struggles to provide adequate answers. It’s one of those puzzling and complex films that almost demands to be seen twice in order to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, a bit like Inception, etc.
Predestination is the third film from local twin filmmaking brothers Peter and Michael Spierig, who obviously have a keen interest in the science fiction and horror genres, and whose sensibility is steeped in the look and tone of those 80s classic video nasties. They kicked their career off with Undead, the low budget but effective horror film in which they created most of the special effects themselves on their laptops. Their second film was the 2010 dystopian vampire thriller Daybreakers, which had a much larger budget, a more sophisticated look, and the likes of Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe in the cast.
Predestination is an adaptation of All You Zombies, a Robert A Heinlein novella from the 50s. The Spierig brothers remain reasonably faithful to Heinlein’s 13-page short story, but in stretching it out to feature length, they let the sinuous plotting become a little too clever for its own good, and it will take a lot to get your head around the twists and turns. Rather than a horror story though, this is paradoxical blend of sci-fi and time travel and it jumps back and forth between time periods, from the 1940s through to the mid 1990s. The film also explores heavy concepts like fate and choice, identity, and suggests that the direction of our lives is already preordained and we can’t change our lot no matter what we do.
Ethan Hawke plays an anonymous “temporal agent”, a special agent who travels through time to try and prevent crimes and disasters from happening. But there is one criminal that he has been unable to capture. He travels back to New York in the 70s to try and prevent a terrorist attack by the elusive “fizzle bomber” who has the city living in fear. (This is an unfortunately silly name for the villain, as the term fizzle suggests that his bomb doesn’t work, yet he is credited with killing thousands of people.) Hawke’s character is seen initially trying to defuse the bomb but it blows up in his face requiring reconstructive surgery before he is able to return to work and try and complete his mission. Hawke is about to embark on the cliched one final mission, and anybody who has seen enough movies will know that this will quickly go pear shaped.
Hawke is working as a bartender in a New York bar in 1975, when he strikes up a conversation with John (Sarah Snook), a man who used to be a woman, who tells him a strange story about her life, and he comes to realise the very strong connection they share. Jane was abandoned into the care of an orphanage and undergoes numerous changes throughout the course of her life. She trains as a special agent for Space Corp, a sinister organisation run by the enigmatic Mr Robertson.
Snook, who first came to our attention in Not Suitable For Children, gives a breakout performance here as the androgynous Jane, who crosses paths with Hawke’s character over several time periods. She undergoes a number of physical and emotional transformations during the film. This is a gender bending role that she plays with confidence and assurance, and it should lead to bigger and better things.
Hawke, once a favourite of the independent scene particularly through his work with Richard Linklater, has been establishing himself in genre territory lately, and even he seems a little bemused by the demands of the script and his character here. Noah Taylor is stuck in a fairly undemanding and underwritten role as Mr Robertson, John’s enigmatic superior and head of the shadowy organisation, but he is not given a lot to do.
The Spierig brothers play around with the paradoxes of time travel here, and break some of the rules that have driven many other films about travelling through time to change the past. But instead of creating something as dazzling and as original as The Matrix, the pair have overreached. Predestination seems to borrow elements from films as disparate as Minority Report, Time Cop, Primer, Looper, Source Code, etc. Their time travel adventure is not in the same league as the Back To The Future trilogy, or even Time After Time, the fantastic thriller that saw none other than writer H G Wells pursue Jack the Ripper into contemporary San Francisco.
The limitations of the budget show in the limited sets, and the occasionally underwhelming special effects sequences, much of which were created by the brothers on their laptops. The different time periods are shot in a different colour palette by cinematographer Ben Nott, which allows audiences to quickly adjust to the time shifts quickly. Matthew Putland’s set design sometimes resembles the futuristic look of some of those classic sci-fi films from the 60s and gives the film a rather distinctive look.
But Predestination is often quite heavy on the exposition and uses the sort of hard-boiled voice over narration that would not be out of place in a piece of 50s noir. And it moves at a slow and uneven pace that will test the patience of many. There is one scene set in a bar in which Hawke and Snook engage in a long conversation, but both dramatically and visually it fails to engage or move the plot forwards or anywhere of interest in particular.
Despite being driven by an ambitious and intriguing central concept, many in the audience felt that Predestination was an underwhelming choice with which to open the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.