Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Country: Australia, USA
Director: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig.
Screenplay: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig. Story by Robert A. Heinlein.
Runtime: 97 minutes.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor.
Trailer: “You always have a choice.”
Plot: Predestination follows the work of a temporal agent, moving back and forth in time to stop numerous crimes including the work of the ‘Fizzle’ bomber. Centred around an event in New York on March 1975, the agent returns again and again within the strict parameters of his mission to attempt to stop the bombing from ever happening. Essential to this mission is John, who the agent must recruit or make use of in a way John as yet has no conception.
Review: Predestination is a smart and likeable film; one that sure, if you are of that disposition, you could poke holes through (like any time travel film) but one you won’t be inclined to. Instead, it is an enjoyable narrative with a competent performance by Ethan Hawke and an absolutely stand-out turn by Sarah Snook, who is riveting throughout. The entire conceit of the film, while remaining essential, fades into the background as the story progresses and instead the audience is left with a fascinating insight into the lives of its chief characters; insights that resonate once the Spierig brothers pull the cloth from the table without moving the china an inch.
There are a few reasons for this. One of the most praiseworthy achievements of the film is that it keeps a taut focus on the simple, boiled down elements of the narrative; avoiding a genre pitfall of overcomplicating things to either incomprehensibility or incredulity. It also avoids the lazy sin of piling up red herrings, or indeed any sort of herring - the script is tightly written, and based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The plot itself can be boiled down to this:
- Time travel is possible, but tightly controlled and secret.
- Temporal agents follow strict rules to prevent serious crimes and disasters. (Thank)
- One temporal agent embarks on his final mission – to stop the ‘Fizzle’ bomber – and recruits another to help.
That’s it, and it remains compellingly simple throughout the film. Sure the film opens in medias res, a common trope for the concept, and we know we’re going to be returning to that spot from a different angle a few times as our protagonist attempts to disarm a bomb that will kill 11,000 people. Several figures are kept out of shot or cropped within the frame, hinting that we’ll get to them soon enough. But that’s one of the great strengths of the film – the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the plot is telegraphed to attentive audience members pretty quickly, winkingly referenced in a bar scene where a certain 1947 novelty song by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe is played (best googled after you've seen the film). The Spierig Brothers know just what is important and what isn't; for example, we know that the missions are tightly controlled by the agency, but the strict rules the protagonist must follow are never completely related to the audience and don't turn up in an artificially contrived plot point to establish their credibility. And they don't need to; the context the script and direction builds for the narrative works effortlessly.
That cute telegraphing of plot is fine, because the real resonance in the film comes from the characterisations and performances of Hawke and Snook, respectively playing the veteran temporal agent and reluctant inductee. The bravura set piece comes early when Hawke takes up his final mission – tending a bar in 1970 New York. Meeting a regular played by Snook, the film spends a great deal of time recounting her interesting past through flashbacks. ‘What does anyone want?’ Snook asks; ‘love?’ Hawke answers, ‘No, a purpose’ she responds. Almost like a short story in the middle of the film, this section is intriguing and the film is well structured to keep the audience on their toes. Yet it is riveting enough in itself to keep audiences invested in the characters (involving the story of an orphan, an amusing recruitment process to ‘Space Corps,’ and comfort women for handsome astronauts); as Snook’s character comments that ‘if you don’t look forwards, you fall backwards into a river of shit.’ Part of the pleasure for the audience, however, is that opportunity to look back.
The main narrative develops from there, but with an eye to charting the psychological depths behind these character’s stories. At one point, after being inducted into the temporal agent club, Snook asks Hawke whether the job is lonely – the heartfelt look she receives in return says it all. The close of the film makes it say even more. But it is all for a purpose, as Hawke reminds her; a statement that audiences will mull over long after they leave the theatre, becoming utilitarians and deontologists over coffee afterwards. Predestination wears its science fiction roots lightly, at points more interested in puzzling out some deeply philosophical questions but on a personal, psychological level. One of these questions goes to the heart of the work the Agency performs itself – what lengths are justified for the ‘greater good’? And who gets to determine what that is? These questions are by no means original, indeed the film owes a conceptual debt to works like Asimov’s Foundation series, but the interesting mix of the high concept and the personal that the film balances just right makes it very compelling to watch.
That balance is key; ensuring that both more committed sci-fi audiences and those on dates will come away satisfied (apologies again to Mr. Carell). The film accomplishes what many tentpole franchises attempt but fail at – having something for everyone in terms suspense, emotional resonance, being a touch thought-provoking, and at points surprisingly funny. ‘Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow’ Hawke’s character blearily observes pasted to the ceiling as a reminder, having just woken from the aftermath of his latest battle, paired with ‘if you do succeed, try again.’ By my measure, the Spierig brothers and their talented cast and crew have succeeded, I look forward to when they next try again.
Rating: Four stars.