Sep 30, 2019
[Since Predestination is a relatively new film and hasn’t been widely seen, this will be a rare review of mine that contains only minor spoilers. But it’s a complex film that deserves deeper discussion, so I may revisit it in a month or two once more people have seen it. And if you’re the type who prefers to remain completely unspoiled, all you need to know is Predestination (an unfortunately bland title for this intriguing film) is currently available on Amazon Instant Video and is well worth the price of a rental.]
Predestination is the latest effort from Michael and Peter Spierig, the identical twin directing team known for the sci-fi vampire flick Daybreakers. Reteaming them with their Daybreakers star Ethan Hawke, Predestination is a mostly faithful adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 time travel short story, “‘—All You Zombies—’” (and yes, the em dashes are part of the title).
I read the Heinlein story years ago (it inspired a chapter title in one of my favorite novels, as well a minor ‘80s pop hit by the Hooters), and I’m confident my first thought upon finishing it was not, “Wow, this would make an awesome movie!” It’s a ground-breaking, highly influential tale (and perhaps the first fictional example of a Stable Time Loop), but it comes off as a bit of a writing stunt; Heinlein seems to have devised it as more of a thought experiment than an actual narrative featuring blood and sweat and emotion and fleshed-out characters. So the Spierigs deserve credit simply for making a coherent, fully realized film out of the source material. But they’ve done much more than that, adding layers and depth, bringing to life in vivid detail just how much Heinlein has tortured the unfortunate subject of this particular thought experiment.
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That unfortunate subject is an androgynous-looking man clearly played by a woman (Sarah Snook) listed in the credits only as “The Unmarried Mother”. This is the pseudonym the character uses to write lurid “true confession” stories in the voice of a young single mother for various seedy publications. One night in 1970, he wanders into a Manhattan dive bar where the bartender (Hawke) cajoles him into telling an interesting story in exchange for a bottle of whiskey. To the bartender’s surprise, the Unmarried Mother begins his tale by revealing he was born a little girl named Jane, and his tale gets more remarkable from there.
Through flashbacks, we see young Jane grow up in an orphanage in the ‘50s as an isolated loner ostracized for her high intelligence and tomboy tendencies. As an adult in the ‘60s, she attempts to join “SpaceCorp”, but is told that only men can be astronauts, with women only allowed to serve as their companions, like a sort of space-based joy division (this element makes a little more sense when you realize it comes straight from the short story, written when the ‘60s were still “the future”, but it’s an odd thing for a movie in 2014 to throw at us without elaborating on it).
Jane trains for the program, but those plans are derailed when she meets and falls in love with a mysterious man who leaves her life just as quickly as he arrived. And to make matters worse, she soon learns she’s pregnant.
Miseries are piled on top of miseries as Jane gives birth to a daughter, only for the infant to be kidnapped from the hospital’s nursery ward not long after. And just prior to this, Jane gets truly devastating news: unbeknownst to her, she was born intersex, with both male and female reproductive organs. While performing the C-section to deliver her baby, doctors had to remove her female parts and build up the male. Without warning or even her consent, Jane has been given gender reassignment surgery and is now forced to become a man named John.
Back in the present, John finishes his tale of woe, and the bartender finally reveals the truth: He’s not a bartender at all, and “SpaceCorp” is a front for a temporal agency charged with traveling into the past and stopping crimes before they happen. John has finally been accepted into the program, and his first assignment is a twisted mission where his gender transition plays a pivotal role.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, except to say that the rest of the film is not quite as compelling as its buildup. But that buildup alone is good enough to make the movie worth watching. It’s amazing that the first half works as well as it does, given it consists almost entirely of a person sitting in a bar and delivering exposition about a screwed up adolescence. A huge amount of credit for this has to go to Sarah Snook, who may or may not be giving a star-making performance here, but she definitely makes the movie. Through her expressive face, she brings beautiful life to this litany of horrors that Heinlein dredged up from his evidently unhinged subconscious. And she gets one great moment of meeting her past self and suddenly gaining a new sense of self worth.
But the film suffers a bit from adding in a clichéd, standard-issue “catching a terrorist” subplot that wasn’t in the original story. I suppose that’s the nature of the beast these days; a sci-fi film about growing up awkward and transgender would probably not get much interest from fans of the genre. I vastly prefer time travel films like Primer or Timecrimes that don’t feel like they have to pull out guns or set off explosions to keep us interested, but I understand moviemaking is a business and some concessions have to be made to ensure a film’s commercial viability (another of those concessions seems to be casting a “name” like Ethan Hawke who, without spoiling things, is not really physically suited for playing this role).
Unfortunately, the grafted-on action movie plot does cause the story to go off the rails in the final act, and I doubt many will completely understand the last few scenes upon an initial viewing. Though, unlike the aforementioned Primer, most will at least grasp the broad strokes, probably because they’ll have seen the ending coming a mile away.
I suspect a lot of the big surprises in Predestination are foreshadowed too much. Being familiar with the twists and turns of the original story, I can’t say for sure, but there seemed to be several instances of way too on-the-nose dialogue, as well as a musical cue that gives the whole plot away. All of this comes from the original short story, of course, but it’s 2015, and post-Back to the Future, post-Donnie Darko, and post-Star Trek audiences understand the inevitable consequences of time travel a lot better than Heinlein’s readers back in 1959; I wish the script had reflected this better.
Still, the film should be commended for giving us a rare instance of a transgender lead character in a sci-fi film (yes, technically Jane/John is intersex, but she/he still falls under the broader “transgender” umbrella term). It’s one thing to explore issues of gender identity in an Oscar-bait biopic like Boys Don’t Cry or quirky comedies like Transamerica or the recent Amazon series Transparent, but it takes a certain amount of courage to broach the subject in a genre generally known for being popular with young men.
But even putting that aside, it’s rather audacious to want to turn a story this bizarre and unfilmable into a movie in the first place. The fact that a film exists that can be compared to both Primer and Boys Don’t Cry should tell you all you need to know about Predestination. Sci-fi fans looking for boilerplate action might be bored by the long stretches of exposition and introspection, but that’s precisely what makes the movie memorable.