Here’s a bit of advice: don’t watch Predestination at 2am, addled on coffee and nicotine, and expect to understand what’s going on. You’re setting yourself up for a fall. Here’s some more advice: don’t think about time travel too much. It makes your head hurt.
And, because I’m feeling generous, here’s a third and final nugget of wisdom: just don’t think about Predestination too much at all. If you get lost in the fervid labyrinth of Peter and Michael Spierig’s imaginations – and believe me, you will – just be content to accept whatever you’re being told. Roll with it. Not that the movie does or doesn’t make sense; just that unless you’re Stephen Hawking, or someone else with a functional understanding of the manipulation of time and space and all its attending paradoxes, you’re probably not going to be able to tell one way or the other.
Adapted from the much more interestingly-titled 1959 short story, All You Zombies, by Robert A. Heimlein, Predestination sees Ethan Hawke as a bartending Temporal Agent – an incredibly elite group who’re tasked with travelling through time in order to prevent crimes before they occur. He’s at the tail end of a too-long career, but before he hangs up his magic violin case for good he wants to catch the one criminal who has eluded him throughout time: a mass-murderer whom the FBI have dubbed “The Fizzle Bomber”. No, I don’t know why either.
Hawke strikes up a conversation with a slightly androgynous-looking barfly, who makes a living writing “confession stories” at 4¢ an hour and bets a bottle of fine liquor that he has the best story Hawke’s ever heard. It’s a story that begins in a 1940s Cleveland orphanage with a little girl named Jane, but eventually comes to incorporate a bizarre sex-change procedure and a government space experiment before it loops back around Ouroboros-style and starts to swallow itself.
I could go on, but to do so would be doing the viewer a disservice, as Predestination is one of those movies built on a series of gradually-escalating plot twists which constantly uproot and rearrange everything you thought you knew about the characters and world until that point. I also wouldn’t be able to without making the thing sound far more complex and nonsensical that it really deserves, as Predestination is also one of those movies which doesn’t necessarily need to be fully understood in order to be enjoyed.
At its worst this is above-average genre fare with unusual intelligence, but at its best a heartfelt, introspective exploration of fate, gender and identity. The two central performances by Ethan Hawke and Australian newcomer Sarah Snook lend genuine emotional weight to a story which is utterly preposterous. It’s quite an achievement, really. Hawke is a veteran character actor who lately seems to gravitate exclusively to films which don’t play by the rules. He certainly knows an interesting script when he sees one, and at this point his name alone is almost an assurance that the material in question will be, if nothing else, at least off-beat and original. Snook, on the other hand, is still in that formative stage of her career where each performance is a surprising revelation of just how talented an actress she is; her role in Predestination is an incredibly difficult one, yet she is never anything other than completely believable, and as a result every scene she’s in is remarkably compelling.
Also of note is the sheer quality of the story’s presentation, from the brisk pace to the way it evokes the look and feel of various time periods through smart costume work and production design. The Spierig brothers might be tentative storytellers – the big twist gets three separate reveals, just to make sure – but they’re more than competent cinematographers, as also evidenced by their previous collaboration with Hawke in the above-average vampire flick, Daybreakers.
At Predestination’s heart, though, is Sarah Snook, who, tragically, you probably haven’t heard of. In 2014 she starred in the distinctly mediocre Jessabelle, a dopey horror flick in which she was by far the best thing on display. But Predestination shows just how capably she can elevate even a very good movie to her exceptional level, and despite all the twisting time-travelling shenanigans and uncertain realities this story questions, her bright future isn’t one of them.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.