The introductory scenes of “Predestination” are intriguing but baffling. We see a character in the midst of what appears to be a heist. An accident occurs, someone catches fire and the camera avoids clearly showing us the faces of the characters present. Clearly, we’re being set up for a big reveal that will come much later. There are many more sequences like this, in which we’re given head scratching moments that won’t fully be explained until later. My advice is just go with it. “Predestination” demands an attentive viewer and rewards the watchful eye with some thoughtful, crazy storytelling.
The main characters, played by Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, are listed in the end credits as The Barkeep and The Unmarried Mother, cryptic names that, after seeing the movie, make sense but are clearly intended to keep the protagonists cloaked in secrecy. In keeping with the film’s intent to keep the twisty narrative and central figures a secret, I’ll only describe the establishing scene.
A mysterious figure walks into a bar, and a friendly bar tender offers conversation and a listening ear. The customer offers to tell the bar tender a remarkable tale and the bar tender listens carefully. It’s saying something that this film is so well written, it delivers on the promise of a great story.
This is the second time Hawke has collaborated with The Spierig Brothers, the writer/director team (they go by Peter and Michael Spierig) who gave us the terrific, vampire world thriller, “Daybreakers.” Their latest is another great film about the nature of identity, presented in the guise of a genre film. What I love about their films is how they give us the kind of story that can take you anywhere, and isn’t afraid to try.
Hawke hits every note with such ease, you can see his finesse as a seasoned actor in full display. Much of the film unfolds in a bar, with two characters in discussion. While this never plays as stagey, Hawke’s experience as a theater actor serves him well during these scenes, which aim for Eugene O’Neill-style barfly patter. In a breakout performance, Snook is remarkable, playing a woman who’s a true original in a time of conformity.
I’m not familiar with the Robert A. Heinlein short story, “All You Zombies,’ upon which the screenplay is based. Being a fan of Heinlein, Rod Serling, Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick, I can vouch that “Predestination” fits in that refreshing category of sci-fi that is idea-driven.
Many scenes were obviously influenced, visually or thematically, by “12 Monkeys,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Memento,” though the core question is, who are we and can we truly change our seemingly unavoidable outcome? A key line, late in the film, sums up the theme as a whole: “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.”
I managed to get this far and not mention that the film portrays time travel. The trailer and poster are forthcoming about this, so it’s not much of a spoiler. There are some cool effects shots and the film is never dull, but there is a down-to-earth, human scale to this that avoids bombast.
There are scenes in “Predestination” that are pretty absurd and fairly ridiculous but manage to avoid camp. Sci-Fi films that take these kind of narrative risks, while establishing a unique rhythm and crafting layered plot lines, can survive outrageous overreaching when the punch line delivers. The closing line, both tender and terrifying, is a perfect capper.
Predestination is not currently playing on Maui but is available in Video On Demand formats.